Sunday, April 3, 2011

Letters from Portugal V: Reliving Alcácer Quibir

4 August 1578, the youthful King of Portugal Dom Sebastião led his troops and those of his ally, the deposed Sultan of Morocco, against those of the reigning Sultan of Morocco outside the town of Casr al Kabir. Outnumbered and outflanked by the Moroccan armies, the battle was a complete rout for Dom Sebastião’s armies. This young and enthusiastic King lost his life, as did vast numbers of the Portuguese aristocracy who were slaughtered on the battlefield. The resultant power vacuum in the Portuguese kingdom allowed for the Spanish King Phillip II to ride in and lay claim to the Portuguese crown. For the next 60 years, the Portuguese and Spanish crowns would be united while Portugal and its domains, which were maintained as distinct, were nevertheless swallowed into the global Spanish empire.

Following a trend characteristic of history writing where the Southern Europeans are concerned, Dom Sebastião’s decision was cast by some historians as prompted by fanaticism. Others however point that the decision to embark on this ‘crusade’ was not Dom Sebastião’s unilateral decision. On the contrary, he was encouraged by large sections of Portuguese society, both nobility and the merchants, who expected large gains from the enterprise.

The events that have unfolded in Portugal since the last column seem to suggest that the Battle of Alcácer Quibir may not be a terribly inappropriate metaphor for this country that is literally verging on an abyss. A couple of days after the hugely popular demonstration of the Geração a Rasca, a Facebook campaign began demanding that the PS Government headed by Prime Minister José Socrates step down. This demand appeared rather bizarre. After all, nothing radical was going to change if the Prime Minister stepped down. The PS would most likely be replaced by the PSD and the latter would have to make the same or similar unhappy choices for the country. Larger cuts on social spending, higher taxes, lower wages, perhaps take financial support from the ogres in Brussels and Washington.

These Facebook activists however got their wish. In a move seemingly designed to bring down his Government, José Socrates sprung a surprise on the Portuguese, announcing, without earlier consultation with others, renewed financial plans to help deal with the crisis while in Brussels. None too happy with this situation and no doubt hoping to gain from a mid-term election, the PSD indicated that it would not support these budgetary proposals. That was that, political crisis in Portugal.

The crisis is further compounded by the flanking measures of the ratings agencies that additionally assault the country by lowering its credit rating. The options for Portugal are grim. It is suggested, that the prescriptions from Brussels and Washington will lay the Portuguese economy low for a long time to come. In addition, the imperial politics being played will result in Portugal compromising its sovereignty as external forces indicate how the country is best run.

On the other hand, there is the embrace of Empires of a different kind. Both the Chinese and the Brazilians have offered to buy out Portugal’s debt. There is however no such thing as a free lunch. Already Lisbon is awash with jokes suggesting the annexation of Portugal to Brazil. While the thought of an annexation or a departure from the EU into a Luso-commonwealth may be just a joke, it would be interesting to see what implications the eventual resolution of the crisis will bring to the Portuguese self-image.

Dom Sebastião’s body was never recovered from the battle-field. This absence allowed for the emergence of Sebastianism, a Messianic belief, not unlike that of some Shia Muslims, that the young King had hidden himself and would arrive at the opportune moment to lead the country out of its misery into glory. This might not be a bad time for the young Sebastian to wake up and rescue his country.

(First published in the Herald, 3 April 2011)

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