Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Of Revolutions and Turns

April is a month sacred to the Portuguese democracy, having toppled on 25 April 1974, the authoritarian Estado Novo. This moment allowed for the Portuguese democracy to be renewed, offering a second chance to a nation that had commenced its tryst with parliamentary democracy with the establishment of the constitutional monarchy in the 1800's, and declared its Republic in 1910.

In the face of the fiscal difficulties that the Republic has been facing however, there have been a number of questions regarding whether they really achieved much. In the words of Professor João Confraria, a Portuguese academic: “The problem of our democratic framework is we do not have a political system strong enough to say 'No more money' to the demands of private interest groups and some state groups….We have failed to forge a viable domestic consensus for 150 years.”

While the country’s problem stem from a failure to inculcate robust institutions of democratic critique, there can be no doubt that the 25 of April also brought in a sea-change to the Portuguese people. There has been a growth of the middle-class, larger numbers have availed of education, and the country has managed to sustain the procedural requirements of a parliamentary democracy. South-Asians know that the process of democratisation, especially in the face of entrenched elites who refuse to share power, is not easy. However, what must not be forgotten is that Portugal’s problem is also a result of its location in the international order.

We should remember that while styled the ‘Carnation Revolution’, the changes of the April 25 flowed from a coup d'état. Though encouraged by a people tired by authoritarianism, the radical social changes unleashed in the course of the coup were curbed in the following years. The coup was launched because the army had had enough of the unceasing loss of young Portuguese lives in the battlefields in Africa; and supported by segments of the Portuguese elite because they realised that the Estado’s policy of holding on to its ‘colonial possessions’ was causing them not only loss of lives, but an isolation from Europe. It is suggested therefore that April 25 represented a strategic turn of the Portuguese establishment, outwards from its colonies, and inwards towards Europe. Some argue that this joining of the European community was also a way for Mario Soares to stabilise his government against the internal resistance he continued to face subsequent to the ‘revolution’.

But how did ‘Europe’ receive Portugal? Often missed amid the hype about Europe, is that it is a disciplinary project. A core group of ‘European’ states determine historically specific ‘best practices’, and enforce them across the board. Non-core countries, especially those of the European south are seen as inherently unable to embody these values, allowing the ‘Europeans’ to be school-teacher act to these errant children of Europe. Thus Frau Merkel threatens to withdraw from the Euro, suggesting that Germany can do without these pile-ons to the Euro. The Portuguese however point out that the good lady does seem to recognize that her country exports a good amount to Portugal, precisely because of the existence of the Euro. Spain has similarly been castigated for years now, on how the Spaniards don't work 'hard enough'. Then there are the warnings that have followed the Portuguese government's request for aid, that aid would come along with conditions.

With a perspective conscious of the intra-European hierarchies, one can see that while Portugal has bumbling and corrupt elite; the problem it faces is also one of perceptions. Portugal’s situation is not just of financial mismanagement but one of humiliation, where Northern institutions, and especially the tyrannical ratings agencies, seem to have ganged up against Portugal.

The turn to Europe came at an opportune moment for Portugal, but it also came at a price; that of discipline, dealing with prejudice and junior partnership. The costs of that bargain are now being paid. After the holiday for the 25 of April therefore, it may not be a bad idea for Portugal to refigure which side it wants to turn, and perhaps renegotiate its relationship with ‘Europe’.

(A version of this post first appeared in the Herald 1 May 2011)

1 comment:

Winnowed said...

How about an union with Brazil? Mind you, you'll have a tough time getting the Brazilians to agree.