Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | September 19, 2012

Austerity, Protest and Social Implosion in Portugal: is a deepening of the economic crisis underway?

MYPLACE team members Tiago Carvalho, Ana Alexandre, David Cairns and Nuno de Almeida Alves, from Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, on Saturday’s protests in Lisbon against newly announced austerity policies.

All photos by Luís Canto, reproduced with permission.

For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE

Description: Gathering at night outside Parliament, with Police guarding the building and keeping the demonstrators at bay

As government policy own goals go, the recent announcement made by the Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho will take some beating. On national television, immediately prior to the Portugal vs. Luxembourg World Cup qualifying match last week, he announced the greatest expansion of the austerity measures in Portugal so far. With last year’s salary cuts for public sector works having been declared unconstitutional, the government’s response has been to extend this deeply unpopular policy to the private sector via higher social security contributions. This basically amounts to a seven per cent pay cut for everyone, including the least well-off, and on top of all previous salary cuts and tax hikes. As if this was not sufficient punishment, a reduction in social security contributions payable by businesses was announced. While this latter measure was presented by Passos Coelho, presumably under duress from the demands of the International Monetary Fund/Central European Bank/European Union Troika, as a means of cutting unemployment, employers, economists and political commentators from home and abroad alike were quick to point out that this move would in fact only benefit a small number of large businesses.


The response on the ground has been rapid. On Saturday, September 15, a new wave of protests engulfed Portugal. An estimated 800,000 to one million people took to the streets in 40 towns and cities across the country. To put this in perspective, this represents around 10% of the total Portuguese population, and if the estimates prove correct, would represent the biggest public demonstration in Portugal since the 25 April revolution in 1974. The message was also clear: “Screw the Troika. We want our lives back”. Still, this movement represented much more than this simple demand, as we shall see.

In Lisbon around 500,000 people took to the streets, making their way to an assembly at Praça de Espanha (Spanish Square). This in itself was a highly symbolic act, with the intention of showing solidarity with the protests in Spain which had taken place earlier the same day. The march itself took around two and half hours to pass. A smaller group of several thousand protesters broke off from the main march and headed, in a legally unauthorised procession, towards the parliament buildings. The occupation of the square beneath the building’s main steps (see photo above) started at 5 p.m., and continued through the night until dawn.

Description: Gathering at Praça de Espanha. On this poster, which in English reads “We all have to practice our art”, the instruction has been added for everyone to go to S. Bento, the location of the Portuguese parliament buildings


Putting this demonstration into context, given the unpopularity of the new austerity measures, a large protest was certainly expected, but not on the scale of what actually took place. The demographic profile of the protesters was equally impressive: young and old, families with children and babies, as well as the more seasoned political veterans and a few local celebrities. Many people who we talked to also said the same thing: that this was the first time that they had ever participated in such a demonstration. But it was the sheer scale of the turn-out which was most impressive, not to mention that this was with the exception of a few presumably rotten tomatoes being thrown at the Troika headquarters, an entirely peaceful occasion. The march itself had been planned since August, organised via the usual social networks. But it was only after the Prime Minister’s pre-match announcement that interest in participation ballooned, gaining support across the country and, to a certain extent, crossing traditional political boundaries: liberals, socialists, communists and conservatives all took part. It was not possible to detect any unified political message from the demonstration, other than dissatisfaction with the austerity policies. It seems as if patience with the government has finally run out and even those who have until recently accepted the need to make “sacrifices” to reduce the country’s debts are now beginning to have doubts about their previous wisdom. While the Portuguese government was the main target for this rage and frustration, much of this disenchantment was also directed at the Troika, who were frequently characterised as thieves or little more than Mafiosi on the various placards on display.


What happens next remains to be seen but further protests are already planned. Government representatives have been invited later this week to explain the new austerity measures to the President, while the main unions are also mobilising. Political tension has also been rising within the centre-right ruling coalition parties, with the leader of junior partner stating that the measures were only accepted as a means of avoiding a governmental crisis. Meanwhile, the main opposition socialist party, which has previously supported the measures introduced under the auspices of the troika, has indicated that it will vote against the next budget. Even inside the main ruling party, the old guard are growing nervous.


With data collection now underway in various Myplace WPs, these contextual developments certainly have the potential to have an impact on our results, although the extent of the youth response in terms of heightened political action remains to be seen. We are also now asking if Portugal will now proceed along the path of Greece, and if we will witness the more extreme forms of protest already detailed by our Myplace partners there. We will certainly do our best to keep you all informed of future developments.

For more photos see: All photos were by Luís Canto.

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