Amid Unrest Over Austerity, Portugal Votes

Jun 5, 2011

Portuguese voters are going to the polls Sunday after months of economic and political disarray. Like Greece, Ireland and Spain, the country is mired in a spiraling debt crisis.

The new government will have to implement a tough austerity plan in exchange for a massive $112 billion international bailout. And the electorate's mood in Western Europe's poorest country is filled with anxiety over difficult times ahead.

This week, Lisbon is celebrating St. Anthony, its native son. Neighborhood squares are decked out for village-like festivities as local residents dance to old-time favorites. The mood is inward-looking.

Many voters feel politicians are ignoring their everyday problems. The results seem almost irrelevant: whoever wins has to adopt the memorandum, the austerity plan drafted by the troika — the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

"The troika wins, the troika is governing us," said Miguel Gaspar, editor in chief of the newspaper Publico. "And we know that in fact the consequences of not applying this are worse than the consequences of the memorandum itself."

The three-year bailout includes sharp cutbacks in public spending, tax increases and justice and labor reforms. The budget deficit should be cut by 3 percent this year, while the economy is forecast to shrink by 4 percent over the next two years.

Economist Joao Cesar Das Neves says that while the global economic crisis exploded, Portugal was in denial, and went on a spending spree.

"We are probably only country around that in the middle of the general turmoil tried to convince ourselves and the markets, mostly the government tried to convince the markets, that everything was OK, no problem," he said.

The outgoing government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates had already cutback spending. But lawmakers rejected his latest deficit-cutting plan as insufficient, bringing down the government and forcing Portugal to follow the Greek and Irish in seeking international help.

For his closing rally, Socrates exuded self-confidence as he walked through the streets of Lisbon, cheered on by supporters. But the latest polls showed him trailing his Social Democrat Party rival, Pedro Pessos Coelho.

Yet, neither candidate addressed one of the crisis' major victims — young people who, like their counterparts across southern Europe, are either jobless or underemployed.

One of the most popular songs in Portugal today is "Parva que sou" — "How dumb am I."

The lyrics of this fado-inspired song are the lament of a generation: "How dumb am I. I'm putting off marriage and having kids. I can't even pay for my car. How dumb am I. And how dumb is a world where to be a slave, you have to study."

This is now the anthem of Geracio A Rasca — roughly translated as "the generation that got shafted" — millions of young people out of work or only on temporary contracts. The movement was christened by a demonstration last March that inspired similar youthful protests in Spain and Greece.

One participant was 30-year-old Miguel Coelho. Since he got his degree in marketing and communications eight years ago, he's had five jobs and several internships, but no benefits.

"It is always very uncertain, jumping from one place to another," he said. "For the first time in our country, we are at the point that the generation after mine, will be a generation with least quality of life than my father's generation."

Analysts say whichever party wins the elections, it will have to impose austerity to cut the deficit while stimulating economic growth to pay the debt during a recession, a daunting task that could require a wide coalition embracing the entire political spectrum.

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