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Economy

Portuguese reject new austerity measures

Portugal has been one of the star pupils among the EU states stricken by debt. Its fiscal consolidation and stable political condition are causes for its success. But, now both are under threat.

When Myriam Zaluar thinks back to the protest she took part in, she doesn't know if she should laugh or cry. Together with half a dozen other unemployed people, Zaluar protested outside a labor office in Lisbon against what they say are fabricated figures. The official unemployment rate in Portugal has now reached almost 16 percent, but according to experts, it's likely to be even higher since many of the unemployed aren't registered.

Zaluar
Photo: Tilo Wagner

Zaluar will face court because of her protest

The police and journalists at the protest outnumbered the protesters. About a month later, Zaluar was summoned to appear in court. She was accused of having organized a demonstration on a weekday before 7pm - and that's illegal under a law dating back almost 40 years. Zaluar doesn't know who's behind the charges: "Clearly, however, someone is deliberately working against the demonstrators. Other activists, too, have been accused on flimsy charges."

Protesters mobilize themselves

The civil protest movement in Portugal hasn't been deterred. In mid-September, around one million people are believed to have taken part in a spontaneous demonstration against the new government austerity measures and the reform program required by the Troika, which is made up of the European Union, International Monetary Funs and the European Central Bank. Never have so many Portuguese expressed their opposition on the streets before. The protesters were mobilized, not by opposition parties or unions, but via social networking sites on the Internet.

Political graffiti in Lisbon
Copyright: Tilo Wagner

The government is facing a new level of opposition from the people

"The most important thing we learnt was that the protests are continuing unabated," says Zaluar. "The crisis has been getting worse and many people know no other way out."

The political climate in Portugal has changed fundamentally in the past month. The conservative coalition government is struggling in the face of public criticism about their new austerity proposals from the smaller People's Party. The government is now trying to repair the damage, while the Portuguese population has to adjust to the new austerity measures.

A search for political alternatives

In 2013, Portugal's income tax will be increased by an average of almost 35 percent. The country has to collect an extra roughly three billion euros by next year, even though the Troika has relaxed the deficit target for 2013, raising it from 3 to 4.5 percent. While the government loses support, the leftist parties are trying to profit from their unpopularity. Until now, the ideological differences between the moderate socialists, communists and the left have been too great to allow them to form an alliance. But this is about to change.

Demonstrator wearing a mask of Prime Minister Passos Coelho and jail clothes protests in front of the presidential palace 
REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

People in Portugal feel trapped by the crisis

Hundreds of leftist political activists attended a conference at the University of Lisbon to develop an alternative political agenda. The huge auditorium is packed. In their speeches, the activists reminded the audience of the Carnation Revolution, which in the mid-1970s put an end to the country's authoritarian regime. Many of those at the congress say they now have to win back freedom and social justice for Portugal. "We're not sure what this will lead to," the former union leader Manuel Carvalho da Silva told DW. "It's important that nothing more gets in the way of the movement. Historic moments can't be planned ahead. They just happen."

Emigration for lack of prospects

People attending the congress
Copyright: Tilo Wagner

Leftists are looking for alternative ways out of the crisis

Three students sit on the stairs that leads to the convention hall. They want a new kind of politics for their country - one that ensures today's youth doesn't end up a lost generation. Clara Rita, a 20-year-old psychology student, worries about her future. "Some of my classmates have already had to stop their studies because their parents can no longer support them," she says. Vitor Azevedo, a fellow student, has almost completed his studies. He also holds no illusions about his future: if he wants to find a job, he'll probably have to emigrate: "It makes me sad. I like my country and would love to live here. But there are very few prospects."

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