OPINION: Portugal's right turn

The ministers are walking a political tightrope, dealing with several complexities

Portuguese Prime Minister Luis Montenegro afp photo Portuguese new Prime Minister Luis Montenegro (L) stands next to his governments ministers during the swearing-in ceremony | AFP

Luís Montenegro was sworn in as the new prime minister of Portugal in Lisbon’s Ajuda Palace on Tuesday, once again ushering in a fractured minority government. The slim margin of Montenegro’s victory has in fact left his leadership position vulnerable. The composition of the present Social Democratic Party (PSD) government, which incorporates members from the People's Party (CDS), together forming the Democratic Alliance (AD), has its major hurdle in governing, directly or indirectly with Chega. Especially because there are no major ideological differences between these parties. Well, in certain cases the Prime Minister should count on the Socialist Party (PS) to pass legislation. But the political balance has shifted decisively to the right, with the Democratic Alliance (AD), Liberal Initiative (IL), and Chega parties securing an absolute majority.

In the present complex political dance of Portugal, the true measure of this government's quality will go beyond the professional qualifications or personal characteristics of its ministers; it is solely based on the policies it enacts. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1974, Portugal has mostly followed a "left-wing" policy, for the first time it has seen such a drastic right shift, with of course Chega rising to power. Left-wing observers argue that a well-executed right-wing program does not equal a commendable government. Right-leaning supporters, on the other hand, believe that a government's worth is determined by its ability to improve economic and social conditions, regardless of how progressive its administration is perceived to be. 

In today's political climate, the concept of a technocratic government—led by experts who appear to be above the fray of ideological battles has been met with scepticism. The question on many minds is whether such an expert-focused-government can be trusted with the reins of power over critical economic, social, and cultural decisions without unchecked authority. This debate had been in the limelight since PSD’s victory. 

On the left side, the political scenario is a mosaic of parties—PS, Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), Left Bloc (BE), Livre, and People–Animals–Nature (PAN)- each with its distinct ideological perspective, making it challenging to present a united front against the right-wing majority. It's worth noting that the AD's economic strategies will likely capitalize on the monetary caution and surpluses left behind by the PS, which previously chose to follow European Union orders rather than address domestic demands. Several left-wing parties have already signalled their intention to oppose the government’s agenda, though this does not necessarily rule out their support for individual policies that align with their ideologies.

The current cabinet’s makeup is in line with Montenegro’s vision and reflects the approach of his ally and former prime minister of Portugal, Pedro Passos Coelho during the era of Troika-imposed austerity. The predominantly right-wing ministers suggest the kind of policies that will be pursued, likely receiving the nod from conservative and neoliberal factions, especially considering their service under the premiership of Passos Coelho. For example: Nuno Melo, the Minister of Defence and acknowledged militarist, is expected to support the EU and NATO's aggressive policies. Pedro Reis, the newly appointed Minister of Economy and a recipient of Cavaco's commendations, advocates for minimal government interference. Paulo Rangel, Minister of State and Foreign Affairs, appears unlikely to challenge the sovereignty sacrifices associated with EU membership. The Minister of Health, Ana Paula Martins, advocates for public-private partnerships. Miguel Pinto Luz, Minister of Infrastructure and Housing, may consider a second privatization of TAP (Portuguese National Airlines) following the Atlantic Gateway debacle.  However, there is one minister who stands out from the pattern is Margarida Blasco of Internal Administration, from whom some expect a degree of resistance to the more extreme tendencies of police unions.

Although the government officially took office on April 2, it is widely acknowledged that the support of Chega is essential for its operational viability. The government’s longevity will depend on its skill in balancing the demands of Chega with the periodic support from the PS. The ministers are walking a political tightrope, dealing with the complexities of ideology, policy, and public opinion. Their profiles and previous roles provide insight into the likely direction of governance, indicating a period of conservative and neoliberal policies mixed with instances of cross-party cooperation. Managing these various forces while guiding the nation through a phase of right-wing ascendancy will be the political story of Montenegro’s phase.

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