The Decline of Democracy in Europe – the example of Portugal

Here are the words of Jose Saramago (the famous late portuguse writer) in a conference in 2008:

Saramago notes that, in fact, the large institutions that set world economic policy do not have directly elected leaders who have to answer to the people – it’s hard to disagree. Since then, things have only gotten worse. In particular in Europe.

After joining the common currency, the Euro, Portugal (as well as other countries) lost the capacity to print money and set interest rates on any sovereign currency: there was no longer one. In theory sovereignty over the new common currency would be shared. In practice, as usual, the most powerful members of the crew are the ones steering the ship. The lack of capacity to devalue the currency and fully control macroeconomic policy, would have consequences that Portuguese politicians were not astute enough to foresee at the time.

During the same period when institutions were being made less and less democratic, the people of Portugal became less and less interested in participating in the common political process. Voter turnout in the most important elections, severely declined.


Legislative elections decide the compositions of the national assembly and consequently the prime minister, and European elections decide the compositions of the Portuguese seats in the European parliament. The trend is unmistakable and it reflects a people’s lost of interest in deciding their government, and consequently the laws and rules under which they live. It’s worth noting that decisions to join the common currency were of course made by the representatives of an increasingly depoliticised public electorate who seemed not to care about these matters. It seems that Saramago’s comment, while true, was incomplete: even when people are given the chance to vote, they increasingly do not want to do so.*

The lost of an appreciation for democratic ideals has reached well beyond institutions and voters and politicians have also internalized the trend. In recent years Portugal has seen itself sink into a financial and economic crisis. Without capacity to control exchange rates, or print it’s own currency, some of the fundamental tools of state finance are no longer available: In what was called a “sovereign debt crisis” Portugal was a now only a semi-sovereign. One of the consequences was that the government signed a deal committing itself to a series of reforms, in exchange for large loans at an interest rate far lower than Portugal could get in the bond market. At first, the government made a point of saying that the economic reforms represented their own political program, but this trend has now reversed. The Portuguese foreign minister has casually referred to its own country as a “protectorate”. [Conveniently forgetting that his party supported the signing of the document committing Portugal to the current economic policies]. Portuguese politicians see the situation of their country as inevitable, either forgetting or disrespecting their people’s right to self determination.

Even the Portuguese Constitution, set up to protect the people against autocratic governments, has now been seen as obstacle, not only from the inside, but also from the outside. In the past years some of the budgets proposed by the government in Portugal have had tax laws deemed “unconstitutional” by the country’s Constitutional (supreme) Court. Partly as a result of these rulings, interest rates for bonds in secondary markets have remained high. The government who wrote the unconstitutional provisions quickly blamed the court (for upholding the constitution).  What is more surprising, the President of the European Commission – an unelected official himself – has pressured the constitutional court of Portugal to rule in favour of the government. He forgets his place as a servant of the peoples of Europe. Perhaps because he was never appointed by them.

The European trend against democracy is not only in Portugal. The EU Council has a presidency that rotates every 6 months among  every member state, and in the first semester of 2014 Greece is the member to assume the presidency. There has been off the record reports that Greece has been pressured into complying with economic bailout conditions if it wants its semester of EU presidency to unravel without problems. While pressures are not made publicly and hence unconfirmed, this is hardly outside the bounds of already existing pressures for countries to conform to centrally designed programs.

All in all democracy in Portugal and in the EU is in a terrible condition. The peoples have disengaged from national politics, and they were never engaged in European politics. And the institutions enforce systems that keep undemocratic leaders in place and the peoples uninterested. This is fertile ground for problems. Golden Dawn in Greece, The Front National in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Hungry’s Jobbik, the UK’s English Defence League and UK Independence Party, etc… are all very bad signs of partly legitimate complaints. Disengagement from the bottom, and dismantlement from the top – by incompetence or by design – show no signs of reversing. The mark left in Europe, and in Portugal (as well as other member states), will be one of distrust and non-cooperation with democratic ideals and European visions. In a world where power is shifting, this will put the EU and its members in a very vulnerable position for the decades to come. With some work, alternatives are possible, but will require a reversal of the current trends: engagement from the people and vigilance of its representatives.


* while I am quick to recognize that voting is hardly the most meaningful form of political participation and engagement, other forms of public participation have shown no signs of invigoration or renewal.


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