Portugal’s austerity measures
The tipping point
How much austerity is too much?
Sep 22nd 2012 | LISBON | from the print edition
A FORTNIGHT is a long time in the euro crisis. In two short weeks Portugal has gone from being a model pupil, praised in Brussels and Frankfurt for steadfastly pressing ahead with a reform programme tied to a €78 billion ($101 billion) bail-out to a cautionary example of the dangers facing governments which attempt to push austerity beyond the tolerance of long-suffering voters.
With his decision to finance a reduction in company costs through a sharp cut in workers’ take-home pay, Pedro Passos Coelho, Portugal’s prime minister, appears to have taken reform past the limit of what is deemed acceptable by large parts of the electorate. Until then, voters had accepted successive rounds of belt-tightening with grudging resignation.
The prime minister is proposing to cut employers’ social-security contributions by 5.75 points, to 18% of their wage bill. By reducing labour costs in this way, he hopes to boost employment, push down prices and increase Portugal’s export competitiveness. What makes the reform such a bitter pill for workers is that their social-security contributions will increase from 11% to 18% of their pay to finance the measure.
In the 15 minutes that Mr Passos Coelho took to announce his scheme on television earlier this month, he performed the remarkable feat of uniting not only the opposition parties against his “intolerable” plan, but also trade unionists, big business and economists. The move also opened a potentially irreparable breach between the two parties in his governing coalition. By the following weekend, hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators had taken to the streets in Portugal’s biggest anti-austerity protest to date.
Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the president, will convene a meeting of the Council of State, his top advisory body, on September 21st. The president’s chief concern is to prevent this unexpectedly vehement backlash from developing into a full-blown political crisis that would demolish the international confidence that Portugal has gradually gained over the past year through painful sacrifice and meticulous adherence to its three-year adjustment programme.
António José Seguro, leader of the centre-left Socialists, the main opposition party, described the proposal as an “immoral and unacceptable” transfer of workers’ earnings to their bosses. It was, he said “a social experiment” never tried before anywhere in the world. Unless the proposal is withdrawn, the Socialists, supporters of the bail-out, but not the prime minister’s policies, will table a censure motion against the government. Potentially more damaging for Mr Passos Coelho, who enjoys a comfortable majority in parliament, is the growing threat of a rift in his Social Democratic Party’s hitherto solid coalition with the conservative People’s Party, led by Paulo Portas, the foreign minister, who argued against the social-security transfer.
Faced with such widespread opposition and the risk that some government MPs could rebel in a crucial October vote on the 2013 budget, the prime minister is widely expected to modify, if not fully retract, his plan. This could spare Portugal a destructive political crisis. But it will be too late to save the prime minister from the damage that has already been inflicted on the government coalition and his own standing with hard-pressed voters.
Mr Passos Coelho’s policies may have succeeded in emphasising Portugal’s differences from Greece. But he is also discovering that austerity cannot be pushed past a limit that is determined by voters, whether they are violently rioting in Athens or marching peacefully in Lisbon.