Forty years ago, Australia was in the midst of a constitutional crisis set off by the blocking of supply by the Senate, which culminated in the governor-general’s Dismissal of the Whitlam government and a landslide election victory for the Coalition. Long-term effects included a boost to efforts for constitutional reform and especially the idea of moving to a republic.

At the same time on the other side of the world, Portugal was engaged in a much more serious crisis. The “carnation revolution” the previous year had overthrown its right-wing dictatorship, and democratic left-wing forces were now struggling for power with communists. The democratic socialists eventually prevailed, and Portugal became a stable parliamentary republic, joining the European Union in 1986.

But in the aftermath of the European financial crisis, Portugal (which accepted a bailout from the EU and the International Monetary Fund in 2011, with a consequent austerity program) has again struck constitutional trouble.

A general election held three weeks ago brought a swing of almost 12% against the incumbent centre-right government. It lost its majority but remained the largest group in parliament, with 107 of the 230 seats. The opposition Socialists won 86 seats, and two further-left groups, the Left Bloc and the Democratic Unity Coalition, had the balance of power with 19 and 17 seats respectively.

This was not an unexpected result (the polls, for once, were very accurate), and it had been anticipated that the centre-right would continue in office with the tacit support of the Socialists. Instead, the Socialists held talks with the two far-left parties to try to agree on a coalition, and last week, to everyone’s surprise, they succeeded.

It wasn’t easy, since the Socialists are very much centre-left and want to keep Portugal in both the EU and the eurozone, while the Left Bloc (radical populists not unlike Greece’s Syriza) and the CDU (more traditional Communists, allied with the Greens) both tend to euroscepticism and a more radical rejection of austerity. But they have managed to sink their differences for the time being.

The normal practice in a parliamentary regime is that once it’s clear that a particular party or group of parties has won a majority, they should be commissioned to form a government. But Portugal’s president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, instead asked sitting Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, of the (confusingly named) centre-right Social Democrats, to continue in office.

He now has 10 days to submit his government for parliamentary approval, and there’s no doubt it will be rejected. The left has already demonstrated its control of parliament by electing its own candidate for speaker, with 120 votes to the government candidate’s 108.

The comparison with 1975 in Australia is instructive. Gough Whitlam was dismissed despite having a majority in the House of Representatives, but the election had been 18 months earlier. There was nothing inherently undemocratic in the idea that a parliamentary deadlock should be solved by a fresh election (even if one disagrees with John Kerr’s strategy for bringing that about).

But if Passos Coelho loses a vote of confidence and then, instead of resigning, recommends another election, it would be grossly improper for the president to agree. The people have just had their say, and unless parliament proves unworkable there is no case for making them revisit their decision.

An incumbent prime minister who is in any doubt about the electorate’s verdict is always entitled to test it on the floor of parliament — as, for example, former premier Rob Kerin did in South Australia in 2002. If that’s all that is happening in Portugal, there’s no call for alarm. But the fact that Cavaco Silva, himself a former centre-right prime minister, has justified his decision on explicitly policy-related grounds is a worrying sign.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing on Friday in The Telegraph, interprets the president’s action as a statement that “Democracy must take second place to the higher imperative of euro rules and membership,” and said: “The Portuguese conservatives and their media allies behave as if the Left has no legitimate right to take power, and must be held in check by any means.”

I think that’s probably overstating the case, but it’s at least a timely warning of the danger.

It also demonstrates, however, that the popular remedy for what happened in Australia, namely a move to a republic with a directly elected president, is no guarantee of stability. That’s exactly what Portugal has, and it’s produced a president who clearly feels that his own democratic mandate (now almost five years old) can carry weight against that of parliament.

Peter Fray

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