In Portugal: Requiem for O Manel

Manuel Simões is being forced to close his 70-year-old family business, a restaurant on the outskirts of Lisbon. Since VAT rose for businesses like his, 75,000 jobs has disappeared from the industry.

Manuel Simões, 64, stands behind the steel and glass counter of his restaurant, O Manel, looking tired under the dim lights. “Everything has a beginning and an end,” he says, trying to hide how emotional he can get when talking about closing his 70-year-old business.

Simões has been serving meals and pouring drinks since the early 1970s, when he inherited this business from his father, who established it in the 1940s. Running the restaurant has never made Simões rich but it provided him with enough to keep the business profitable while employing four members of staff.

Located in Vale da Amoreira, a troubled, working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon, O Manel is a place where you can enjoy the rare sight of an amiable conversation between African immigrants, gypsies and Portuguese. 
 
“Even those kids who are involved in all sorts of things – you know, drugs and what not – when they come here they never cause any trouble,” says Fatima Simões, Manuel’s wife and the restaurant’s cook. 
 
O Manel was founded back when Vale da Amoreira’s landscape was all pine trees and wild nature, not sevenstorey grey buildings enveloped in an aura of crime and poverty. Seven decades later, the restaurant is the only institution left that has seen it all.
 
But this month marks the end of O Manel. Although Portugal’s financial crisis is partly responsible, Simões was driven over the edge by the VAT rise from 13 to 23 per cent for restaurants and cafés – an austerity measure implemented in 2012 as part of Portugal’s bailout programme. This has slashed most businesses’ profit margins, at a time when eating out has become more of a luxury than a habit.
 
According to the association of Portuguese restaurants and hotels, since VAT for restaurants has risen, 75,000 jobs have disappeared in an industry that employs 300,000 people, 6 per cent of Portugal’s workforce. The association predicts that by the end of 2013 the number of jobless food-service workers will rise to 120,000. 
 
Simões reacted to the VAT hike in the way he thought most fair to his blue-collar, crisis-affected clientele: instead of raising his prices, he reduced them in order to keep the customers coming. 
 
His hope was proved wrong – or rather, insignificant, as Portugal’s economic crisis spread like wildfire, bringing the country to a record overall unemployment rate of 17.8 per cent. Although the customers stuck with O Manel, spending €6 (£5.20) for a meal gave way to paying just €1 (90p) for a beer. 
 
“When we shut the restaurant down, people won’t know what to do,” Simões told me when I met him. “We’ve always been here. We’ve seen so many people grow up. It’ll be like losing family.”

 

A "Pastel de nata" - Lisbon's most popular pastry. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain