Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Portugal election: complications ahead

It’s shaping up to be the closest contest in Portugal’s post-revolution democracy, but such is the level of apathy, angst and anger over politics that a record number of eligible voters may not bother to cast their ballot on Sunday. Those who do vote may end up concocting a parliamentary configuration that will make governing this country much more complicated than it has been for years.
Enthusiasm for voting has been in decline since 1974. People exercise political power through periodic legislative elections in which all citizens over the age of eighteen have the right to vote under conditions of equality and freedom. Sounds good, but the abstention levels have increased dramatically.
Democracy of a limited kind first arrived in Portugal on 5 October 1910 with the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy and the establishment of the First Republic. Dubbed by some as the ‘Nightmare Republic,’ it lasted for just 16 years during which time the voting system prior to universal suffrage put into power no fewer than 45 governments.
Rampant economic ineptness and political corruption between 1910 and 1926 created turmoil and ushered in almost half a century of dictatorship. Since the revolution of 1974 there have been a relatively modest 14 freely elected governments.
The turnout of voters in 1974 was a whopping 91.7%. It has dropped almost ever general election since then. In 1983 it had plummeted to well below 80% and in 1991 to well below 70% . In the last two general elections – 2009 and 2011 – the abstention rate was in excess of 40%.
Public disenchantment and distrust of politicians in the era of harsh austerity is widespread and deep in Portugal and so another low turnout seems inevitable.
To add to the turnout concerns, top football teams will set a precedent by playing premier league matches on Sunday.
Portugal’s election commission (CNE) could do no more than express “concern” over the likely number of lost votes because of matches involving Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting. Although the CNE always asks that big games not be held on election days, no legal ban can be imposed.
The results of the football games are easier to predict than the outcome of the 2015 election. If the pollsters are to be believed, the centre-right PSD-CDS coalition and the centre-left Socialist party could each win about 100 seats in the 230-seat parliament, leaving both sides well short of a majority.
The conservative coalition have been running the show for the past four years, the first freely elected coalition government in Portugal to survive a full term in office. The centre-left are hoping to re-establish the ruling status they enjoyed between 2009 and 2011, but they have been slipping somewhat in the most recent opinion polls.
Daily tracking by pollsters show the Communists to be steady on 10% and the Left Wing Bloc on 5%, meaning that despite the deeply unpopular austerity measures imposed by the coalition alliance there is no great appetite in Portugal for radical protest parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.
With no outright winner in prospect, one possible outcome is a weak minority government that will struggle to survive. Instability that could force another election within a year or two. Such a scenario, say analysts, could undermine Portugal's reform efforts and delay its recovery from the debt crisis.
Although none of the parties are advocating it, an alternative to a minority government would be a grand coalition. It has happened before. The Socialists ruled in coalition with the PSD and the Christian Democrats in the 1980s.
Never have the Socialists shared power with the Communists and doing so now is hard to imagine. For one thing, although the Socialists have promised to ease some austerity measures, unlike the far left they share the incumbent coalition’s intention to abide by the fiscal discipline required by being a member of the 19-nation eurozone.
So it’s all up in the air; speaking of which, if you are looking for an omen, good or bad, the forecast for most of Portugal for the rest of the week is sunshine. On Sunday and Monday rain is expected. Of course, weather forecasts can turn out to be wrong. And so can polls.

Conservative leader Pedro Passos Coelho

Socialist leader António Costa

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Election hots up, candidate reveals all

Gone is the perception that all politicians are shady. Well, at least one isn’t. With just over three weeks to go before Portugal’s general election, the left-wing Lisbon candidate Joana Amaral Dias has emphasised her belief in transparency.
But why would she choose to appear on the cover of a glossy magazine in the nude?
Why not?” was her succinct reply.
Stripped naked but with her dignity deftly intact, the photo shows that Joana is expecting another child and that her eyes are firmly fixed on the large number of still undecided voters.
The 40-year-old was making something of a statement about systematic corruption and the opaque power of the elite. She advocates “a clear and faithful relationship with voters.”
Far from being just another pin-up gal, Joana is the daughter of a psychiatrist and with a Ph.D degree of her own she practices, teaches and conducts research as a clinical psychologist. She is a prolific author of scholarly as well as newspaper articles, and has published a biographical and psychological treatise on historical figures in Portugal.
As an independent politician and the mother of a young son, she served as a member of parliament between 2002 and 2005. Her latest pregnancy may limit her activities on the campaign trail, but these days there are alternatives to rushing from soap box to soap box.
When the now famous photo of Joana in the arms of her boyfriend was reproduced on her Facebook page, it attracted thousands of ‘likes’ and elicited praise for her courage and candour.
Such an unprecedented initiative is unlikely to be replicated by Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque whom Joana accuses along with Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho of lying through “as many teeth as they have in their mouths” over the bank scandals.
The grey-suited brigades from the centrist Social Democrats and Socialists are fronting up to each other with no sign among the electorate of any clear party preference. Apathy is such that a large number of people are undecided which way to vote - or whether to vote at all.
Joana’s bold stance has chivvied things up in Portugal but it might not work in other countries. Germans would undoubtedly prefer Angela Merkel to remain fully clothed. In Britain, the only last-minute hope of preventing Jeremy Corbyn from securing the Labour Party leadership may have been for Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall to disrobe, though this might have sparked a mass defection to the Tories.
If Hillary Clinton were to pose in the altogether it might arouse memories of her husband’s non-political activities in the White House. 
For now, Joana Amaral Dias’s impressive credentials remain unrivalled, but the bare fact is that we shall have to wait until 4 October before we know if she will need to take maternity leave from parliament.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fátima peace mission to Syria delayed

A Christian plan to promote peace by taking a statue of Our Lady of Fátima from Portugal to Syria has been postponed because of the dire state of affairs in Damascus, but it has not been cancelled altogether.
The largely sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims over the past four years has killed 200,000 and displaced 11 million Syrians, including many Christians caught up in the conflict.
A symbolic gesture amid the unfolding human catastrophe in Syria, the plan to take a replica pilgrim statue to Damascus from the world-renowned Fátima Shrine in central Portugal was announced in the middle of last month.
The statue was to have arrived on Monday, 7th September. On that date two years ago, Pope Francis held a day of fasting and prayer in St Peter’s Square, Rome, during which he said: “Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation – these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world.”
The Fátima visit had been requested by the Syrian Melkite and Greek-Catholic leader, His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III. Having agreed to the request, the Shrine then received a communication from the patriarch on 27th August asking for the visit to be postponed because conditions in Damascus were “aggravated.”
The patriarch did not consider it “opportune or convenient” and asked that the visit be delayed “to a later and more favourable date.” No new date has been set, but a Shrine spokesperson affirmed that “the visit will happen.”
The idea of the pilgrimage is “to implore the maternal intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for peace and for the well-being of Christian communities who have been suffering intensely from the horrors of war.”
The Christian community in Syria is one of the world’s oldest. The apostle Paul is said to have been converted on the road to Damascus. Some Christians in the ancient town of Maaloula, about 50 kilometres northeast of Damascus, can still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Prior to the unrest that accompanied the Arab Spring, the ethnically mixed Christian community of 1.8 million, or 10% of Syria’s population, enjoyed peace and religious freedom under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The worsening civil war and persecution by Islamic fundamentalists have made life intolerable and forced what Patriarch Gregorios III has described as a “tsunami” of Christians to flee.
The Catholic Herald reports that the patriarch has issued an impassioned plea to young people, begging them to stay. In an open letter, a copy of which was sent to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, he said: “The almost communal wave of youth emigration, especially in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iraq, breaks my heart, wounding me deeply and dealing me a deadly blow.”
The patriarch added: “Given this tsunami of emigration… what future is left for the Church? What will become of our homeland? What will become of our parishes and institutions?”
Prior to the pilgrimage postponement, the Bishop of Leira-Fátima, António Augosto do Santos Marto, said he wished “to respond to the appeals of the bishops in the Middle East, witnesses to the extermination of Christians in the face of the indifference of the international community.”
The rector of the Fátima Shrine, Fr Carlos Cabecinhas, had emphasised that “the message of Fátima is a message of peace.” He had urged Christians to support the statue’s visit with prayers “so that the Lord may grant peace to Syria and strengthen the Christians who live there.”
Catholics believe that the message of Fátima was delivered during apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 and that it includes the declaration that “no suffering is in vain.” The vision of the so-called third secret of Fátima ends with an image of hope, which is what the pilgrim statue is intended to convey.
In a related development concerning the ‘martyrdom’ of Christians as prophesied in the third secret of Fátima, a group of nuns from a Syrian monastery made an offering of three bullets and a handkerchief to the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima in honour of three Syrian Christians executed on September 4, 2013.
The Shrine reported that the three were killed by jihadists in Maaloula, one of the most beautiful and historic towns in Syria, because they would not renounce their Christian faith.

Christians worshipping in Syria