When A Coup Is Not A Coup



From top: Passos Coelho of the right-wing PSD; António Costa, leader of the opposition Socialist party and supporters; Dr Julien Mercille


What is the truth behind the alleged coup in post-election Portugal?

Dr Julien Mercille writes:

This weekend, there was a lot of talk on social media about an alleged coup in Portugal. For example, on twitter, #PortugalCoup was very popular.

However, the truth is that there has been no coup in Portugal, not even a constitutional crisis. But this could change, of course.

How did the whole controversy arise? (Interesting discussions may be found here , here and here.

On October 4th, legislative elections were held for the Portuguese parliament, which has a total of 230 seats.

There are two main electoral groups: left wing and right wing. The two main right-wing parties won 107 seats together, while the three main left-wing parties won 122 seats.

However, the one party that won the most seats on its own is the right-wing party PSD, which got 89. It is led by a man called Passos Coelho.

What was unexpected in the election is that the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), which can be compared to Ireland’s Labour Party, did not do as well as expected. On the other hand, the “radical left” parties Bloco de Esquerda (“Bloco”) and Communist Party did very well.

Bloco is interesting to watch because it is the Portuguese equivalent of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. It is one of those new left-wing parties that got electoral traction in Europe during the economic crisis of which we are slowly emerging.

The last player in the thriller is the President of Portugal, Mr. Cavaco Silva. He was elected in 2006 (there are separate presidential elections in Portugal) and he happens to be a member of the right-wing PSD party that got the most votes in the legislative elections. He’s a big political figure in Portugal who has been around for a long time. You can compare him to Margaret Thatcher in his politics and significance, so pretty right wing.

The normal procedure is that following a legislative election, the President offers the leader of the party that got the most seats the opportunity to form a government. So the President gave that chance to the leader of the PSD, Passos Coelho.

And there’s the rub. Passos Coelho cannot muster a majority in parliament. Indeed, the right-wing parties (PSD and CDS) only have, together, 107 seats. That falls short of the majority needed of 116 seats.

However, together, the left parties (Socialist Party, Bloco, and the Communists) have 122 seats and thus have a majority. Therefore, they could vote down any piece of legislation introduced by a right-wing government.

And here one can see where the accusation that the President conducted a coup comes from. He asked the leaders of the right-wing parties to form a government even though it is the left-wing parties that have the most seats.

However, the fact is that this accusation is wrong. The President just followed tradition: it is always the leader of the party that has the most seats in parliament that gets asked first to form a government. The President, therefore, did nothing wrong or illegitimate in this respect.

But this is not all what fuelled the “coup” story. In his speech, the President made some revealing remarks that were truly extraordinary and deemed very inappropriate, even by some members of the right-wing parties.

What he said is basically that he would not allow in government leftist parties, like Bloco and the Communists, that oppose Europe’s regime of austerity and NATO.

The President effectively conveyed that he cared more about what financial institutions and the European establishment think of the Portuguese elections than what Portuguese people want. Indeed, he declared:

“After having completed a demanding programme of financial aid, which implied heavy sacrifices for the Portuguese, it is my duty, within the scope of my constitutional remit, to do everything possible to avoid that wrong signals are transmitted to the financial institutions, investors and markets, placing in question the Country’s external trust and credibility which, with great effort, we have been gaining”

In short, he doesn’t want parties that challenge the Eurozone and NATO to be in government:

“The observance of the commitments assumed within the framework of the Euro Zone is decisive, is totally crucial for the financing of our economy and, consequently, for economic growth and job creation”.

The parties that the President does not want in government are Bloco and the Communists because they have called for:

“the repeal of the Lisbon Treaty, of the Budgetary Treaty, of the Banking Union and of the Pact of Stability and Growth, as well as the dismantlement of the Economic and Monetary Union and Portugal’s exit from the Euro, and, still further, the dismemberment of NATO, of which Portugal is a founder member”

This is very explicit, and it infuriated many throughout Europe. It has been suggested that it meant that the European Union, or the troika, had concocted a coup towards Portugal, by forcing out parties that oppose European austerity.

But as stated above, so far, there hasn’t been any coup because everything has proceeded normally (except for the President’s incendiary words). Even the left parties agree with this. For example, a leader of Bloco, Catarina Martins, said that the President’s speech was unacceptable not for the decision to give the right-wingers the first shot at forming a government, but for the comments he made against left parties.

But the soap opera is not over, far from it.

What will most likely happen next is this.

Within a few days, the right-wing government will lose the parliament’s confidence, because it doesn’t have a majority.

Then the question will be: what will the President do? Normally, he should give the opportunity to the left parties to form a government, which ostensibly, they would be able to do, because they have a majority of the seats.

But what happens if the President remains stubborn and simply does not want to let the left parties Bloco and the Communists enter government? Then, we’ll have a real constitutional crisis, and depending on how things go, something that one could characterise as a coup by the President.

Sparing you the legal details, an additional problem is that, according to Portuguese law, there cannot be new elections before nine months from now, so governance in the country until then would be unstable and uncertain, to say the least.

If, on the other hand, the President yielded and allowed all left parties to form a government, then, we would have a majority government of the left.

But even then, problems could arise between the Socialist Party, which is centre-left, and Bloco/Communists, which are “radical left”. Would those two groups be able to agree on enough common policies to maintain a government, or would they fail to reach consensus to the point that their government would fall?

To follow the developments, watch this space.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at UCD. His book Deepening Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Crisis: Europe’s Treasure Ireland is out now. Follow Julien on Twitter: @JulienMercille

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43 thoughts on “When A Coup Is Not A Coup

  1. Owen C

    Well this is confusing. All weekend Julien was tweeting approvingly of articles which called the Portuguese situation an EU-coup (likening it to the USSR’s invasion of Eastern Europe, and/or the right wing fascists seen in Latin America), but now seems to have changed his mind. While his eventual realization of what is going on in Portugal is welcome, one cant but help feel this was another initial “I’ve got an opinion, I don’t need to actually research it first” effort by Mercille.

      1. Owen C


        he posted (not retweeted) an article written by the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans Pritchard, which was republished by the Indo, calling it “one of the most important articles about the situation in Portugal”. In this article the following line was contained (and cited by Mercille):

        “These reflexes are similar – and chilling – to anybody familiar with 20th century Iberian history, or indeed Latin America. That it is being done in the name of the euro is entirely to be expected”.

  2. Sido

    I had read about it, and wanted to know more, but you would be hard pressed to find anything in the main stream media.

    1. Pardon

      I read it up to “you can compare him to Margaret Thatcher in his politics and significance, so pretty right wing”. I then came to the conclusion that I was too intelligent for such kindergarten analysis and stopped. I would be interested to know if Mercille deliberately dumbs it down for BS, so that he can entertain the squealing Sinn Fein libertarians. Anyone?

      1. Supercrazyprices

        Well you’re clearly a Fine Gael supporter so you’re incapable of seeing beyond the ideology of uncontrolled capitalism for the few at the expense of the many.

          1. Neilo

            Its iteration in the European Union is scarcely optimal: an unfree market that offers socialism to the plutocrats and suck me ar5e to the rest of us.

      2. Sido

        Indeed, President Silva said last week: “In 40 years of democracy, no government in Portugal has ever depended on the support of anti-European forces, that is to say forces that campaigned to abrogate the Lisbon Treaty, the Fiscal Compact, the Growth and Stability Pact, as well as to dismantle monetary union and take Portugal out of the euro, in addition to wanting the dissolution of NATO”.
        Seems to me the Julien is doing a bit of his own dumbing down. Way to go Jules baby.

  3. Rob_G

    This is the first time that I have felt that Mercille has given a reasonably level-headed overview of events, weighing up both sides of an argument, and not resorting to “this is due to the control of media/establishment parties/EU/substitute as required”

  4. Brendan Ogle

    Interesting on Portugal Julien. However we are not ‘slowly emerging’ from an economic crisis unless we consider rushing headlong towards another even deeper one to be ‘slowly emerging’. How could a currency which has lost 1/3 of its value in 12 months be emerging from anything? The EU is in a systemic fiscal, political and democratic crisis and has addressed the causes of none of it. In fact it is getting worse.

    1. Owen C

      “How could a currency which has lost 1/3 of its value in 12 months be emerging from anything?”

      Oh, this is economics amateur hour, excellent. The EUR has in fact lost 13% of its value against the Dollar in the last 12 months and 8% against a basket of currencies which the EZ trades against (its “trade weighted index” TWI). So, you know, just a little bit less than a third. If you want to go back slightly further, its lost 20% against the Dollar in the last 18 months and 13% against its TWI. Overall, the EUR is around 5-6% below its average over its 16 year lifetime. “Failure” indeed.

  5. fluffybiscuits

    Nice analysis and broken down simply for idiots like myself! A leader should seek to do what is best for the people obviously which the president is not doing in this situation. A left wing govt akin to Podemos or Syrzia would be a threat to the ruling classes interests in terms of their business and influence. Tatcher was a big friend of business in the UK, she privatised a whole generation of industry.

    1. Neilo

      Then-nationalized British Steel lost a billion pounds on 3 billion turnover from 1980 to 1981. There’s some cause for complaint about aspects of Thatcher’s premiership such as the aftermath of the miners’ strike where devastated communities were shamefully neglected. Cutting subvention to loss-making nationalized industries like British Steel and British Leyland -was justifiable in my view.

  6. Leaning to the centre

    I was just thinking about half way through it was amazing that this Julien lad had written something coherent and then he had to go and return to form with hyperbola
    The President effectively conveyed that he cared more about what financial institutions and the European establishment think of the Portuguese elections than what Portuguese people want.

  7. Kolmo

    Could we call the re-polling of various referendums in Ireland to get the correct result by scaring the sh1t out of people a coup?
    Certainly anti-democratic.

    1. Owen C

      I think its difficult to call “asking people to vote (again)” anti-democratic. Perhaps ‘selectively democratic’ is a better description.

  8. Daniel

    Nice article, but the conclusion is deeply flawed as Dr. Mercille has omitted a key point in the entire affair.

    Coelho, on behalf of the PàF, informed President Silva that he was unable to form a government following the failure of talks with the Socilaist Party (PS) on the 19th October.

    On the same day, the head of the PS, Costas, was consulted by the President and informed him that he had the support of Communists and the Greens to form a government.

    On the same day, the leaders of all the other parties informed the President that they would support the PS government, with details to be negotiated later.

    On the 22nd October, President Silva gave seal of Office to Coelho, and empowered him to form a minority government.

    That’s a key part of this whole fiasco, and lends credence to those who claim thy whatever’s going on here, it isn’t democracy.

  9. Jake38

    Portugal had a communist government for a while in the 70’s after they got rid of the Fascist dictator Salazar who had driven the place into the ground over the previous 40 years. If I remember correctly it wasn’t much of an improvement.

  10. ahjayzis

    The European Union and the Eurozone may have made a fatal error in allowing itself to become an entirely right-wing project. Nothing that imbalanced can be stable when it becomes a partisan project. Especially since a large chunk of the right are eurosceptic anyway.

    I’m on the ‘stay in and change it back’ side, but unless German hegemony is broken we’re fooked.

    And I’ve been really surprised over the last 8 years why our media haven’t been covering politics and economics in our fellow bailout countries like, at ALL. They’re surely the most relevant countries to report on? Same feeling about why we didn’t team up with Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece – Germany and her friends had no qualms about forming an austeritarian block against us individually.

    1. ahjayzis

      I mentioned that above. I’m talking EPP-style right-wing politics, not Britain First or the Front National.

      1. Sido

        Sorry, I didn’t pick that up at first glance. I find the interesting thing here is that honest politicians of both the left and right, know what the problems are. And they are the same from whichever side of the political fence you sit on.
        Whilst the likes of Phil Hogan sit back in Brussels, chugging back burgundy and telling us how we should be grateful.

      2. Neilo

        I’d have thought EPP was some particularly weak sauce in terms of right-wing politics but I have a lump of coal instead of a heart. As ever, ahjayzis, I greatly enjoy your stuff – always very thoughtful/

    2. classter

      ‘The European Union and the Eurozone may have made a fatal error in allowing itself to become an entirely right-wing project’

      How is this true?

      The competition laws arguably fall under this bracket but they have helped smaller companies & countries. They have put pressure on bloated but well-connected monopolies. Ryanair, for example, probably could not have come into existence without the EU. Great for a handful of well-paid employees of European flag carriers. Crap for the vast bulk of the population who could not afford to travel. Similarly, free movement of workers. In some ways this provides workers with some of the rights granted to capital.

      The EU has the most stringent worker’s rights laws in the world, the strictest environmental legislation in the world. To join one of the criteria is that you must be a ‘stable democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law’. The biggest category in the EU budget is ‘Structural Funds & Cohesion Funds’ which ‘aim to reduce regional disparities in income, wealth and opportunities’. It is secular & has incorporated human rights into its statutes. None of these are typical right-wing aims.

  11. Fergus the magic postman

    “the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), which can be compared to Ireland’s Labour Party, did not do as well as expected.”

    It might have been a good comparison a good few years ago, but Ireland’s Labour Party is more of a centre right party these days.

  12. Journowatch

    Could Julien kindly refrain from using “for example” and ” basically” in all future posts. Such usage only serves to emphasis the “simplistic” tone . Merci beaucoup.

  13. Ambrosia

    “Sparing you the legal details” . Thank fupp for that. Reading Mercille is like taking a trip down memory lane .. 5 years old, curls galore, “Ann and Barry ” my inspiration

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