The government of Portugal appears to be headed for a constitutional crisis. Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s President, has refused to permit a left-leaning coalition from forming a new government in the country, despite the fact that the coalition secured an absolute majority in parliamentary elections earlier this month. Instead, incumbent Prime Minister Pedtro Passos Coelho, who leads a center-right coalition, has been asked to form a new government, despite controlling just 107 of the 230 seats in the parliament—compared to the left-leaning alliance that controls 122 seats. The country’s conservative president declared he would not ask the leftist coalition to form the government due to the coalition’s anti-austerity political platform, which the president says threatens the economic stability of Portugal.
The move creates an interesting stalemate. While the left opposition cannot form a government without approval of the president, no government formed without their support could survive a confidence vote, suggesting whatever government is formed may be short lived indeed. The leader of the Socialist Party, Antonio Costa, described the standoff as a “pointless political crisis,” and voted to oppose the first vote in parliament, paving the way for a government to be formed next month.
What do you think? Is the president of Portugal correct in his decision to deny the ability of the leftist coalition to form a government? Why? And how might this decision affect the future of Portuguese democracy?
Violence erupts on the streets of Athens in response to the Greek parliament's approval of harsh austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF.
The financial crises that have gripped debt-ridden countries in the eurozone in the last year offer some excellent examples of the challenges and complexities of “two-level games.” A two-level game, as defined by political scientist Robert Putnam, refers to a common situation faced by political leaders when negotiating agreements such as trade deals with foreign states. To reach an acceptable agreement a leader must take into account the demands of actors at two levels: the domestic level and the international level. For example, in negotiating a trade deal with China, President Obama would need to try to balance the demands of China’s government with the demands of domestic actors such as Congress and business or labor interest groups. These demands restrict the set of acceptable outcomes at each level, and the final agreement must therefore be located within that window of overlap where both domestic and international actors would find an agreement acceptable. The absence of an overlapping set of acceptable options would ordinarily produce a negotiating failure (examples might include the Kyoto and International Criminal Court Treaties, which President Clinton favored but could not get the U.S. Senate to ratify). The theory of two-level games also highlights the fact that leaders can use constraints at one level to gain leverage at the second level. So Obama might tell China’s leaders that he can’t budge any further on trade concessions due to American business demands, or he might tell Congress this is the best deal they’re going to get from an intransigent Chinese leadership.
What does all of this have to do with the eurozone financial crises? Debt-ridden countries such as Ireland, Portugal, and Greece have sought emergency loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in order to stay afloat financially, but the EU and IMF have attached strict conditions to these loans. Recipient countries have been required to enact harsh austerity measures designed to correct the problems that necessitated the emergency bailouts. These unpopular measures include raising taxes, slashing welfare spending, and cutting government jobs and pensions. Leaders such as the Prime Ministers of Ireland and Greece have faced strong opposition to these internationally imposed demands from a range of domestic actors (the general public, interest groups, and some members of parliament). George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, narrowly survived a no confidence vote in parliament on June 22, and violent protests have erupted in the streets of Athens in response to the proposed austerity measures. Papandreou succeeded in holding together enough domestic support to get these measures approved by parliament, although clashes between riot police and protesters escalated after the vote.
But this isn’t the end of the story. As Foreign Policy blogger David Rothkopf notes in a post entitled “15 Things the Greek Austerity Vote Won’t Accomplish,” the parliament’s decision to approve the controversial measures “won’t guarantee that Greece sticks with the plan that’s approved. Riots in the streets illustrate that the people of Greece are deeply unhappy with what they perceive as a foreign-imposed squeeze. They can force a political reversal that leads to a policy reversal.” In other words, round one of this two-level game may have been won by actors at the international level, but the game continues…and domestic actors in Greece, Portugal, and elsewhere may yet be able to exert sufficient pressure on their leaders to change the game decisively in their favor.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Two parties fell from power last week, trigging election. In Portugal, the government of Prime Minister José Sócrates fell after a no-confidence motion was passed by the five opposition parties over spending cuts and tax increases intended to address the ongoing economic crisis in the country. A general election looks likely to take place in May or June. Meanwhile, in Canada, Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government fell after three opposition parties passed a no-confidence motion in response to a finding in the House of Commons that found Harper’s government in contempt of parliament. Harper’s government was found to have provided falls information to parliament on at least three separate occasions. New elections are scheduled to take place on May 2.
The collapse of Sócrates’ government in Portugal and Harper’s government in Canada highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of parliamentary systems. Unlike presidential systems, where legislative terms are fixed and elections are set according to a regular schedule, parliamentary systems usually only have a maximum length of time between elections, normally five years. Elections can—and indeed, often do—come earlier. The government may call an early election if it feels that doing so can give it a larger majority in parliament. And opposition parties may force an early election by passing a no-confidence motion.
Both country’s upcoming elections should provide interesting political theatre. In Canada, public opinion polling is suggesting that Harper’s Conservative Party will likely win a plurality of seats but be denied an absolute majority in the House of Commons, the country’s parliament. If this happens, it will either be forced to seek coalition partners to establish a government, or (more likely) it will try to rule as a minority government again. The problem is that minority governments are inherently unstable, as the government is forced to cobble together a majority vote on every issue from an unstable and often shifting group of Members of Parliament from other parties.
In Portugal, the stakes are perhaps even larger. There, the collapse of Sócrates’ government came just days before the European Union was scheduled to decide on a rescue package for the Portuguese economy. That package, which was conditioned on the government of Portugal enacting strict (and widely unpopular) austerity measures, now appears to be in jeopardy. But the ability of the E.U. to discipline the government of Portugal may be limited, as any spillover of the economic crisis from Portugal could endanger the stability of the euro, the common currency used in fifteen E.U. economies, including Spain, France, and Germany.
Posted in Almond Comparative Politics Today 9/e, Almond Comparative Politics Today: ATF 5/e, Danziger Understanding the Political World 9/e, Draper The Good Society, Roskin Countries and Concepts 10/e
Tagged Canada, coalition politics, Euro, European Union, minority government, parliamentary system, Portugal