Following the Spanish “Indignados,” a Portuguese protest movement wants civil society to be at the center of politics. But the country’s financial solvency may have last say in Sunday’s vote.
LISBON - Sometimes all you need is a song. "Geração à rasca" ("Generation In Trouble"), the hit by Lisbon-based band Deolinda, was the trigger for Portugal's fledgling youth revolution that has rallied this spring against the precarious economic and social state of an entire generation.
Last February, humanitarian aid worker Paula Gil, unemployed worker João Labrincha PhD student Alexandro de Sousa Carvalho, and part-time worker and student Antonio Frazao decided to make this song both the slogan and the name of their protest movement. "Geração à rasca" became a stunning, overnight success in a country crushed by an intractable recession.
On March 12, after the movement appealed to the Portuguese people to demonstrate the national malaise, 300,000 took to the streets of Lisbon to march from Liberty Avenue towards Largo de Camões to protest against the lack of job security.
There was a simultaneous massive rising elsewhere in the country. In Porto, Faro, Coimbra, tens of thousand people demonstrated against the state of the economy, which is taking its toll on both the country's poorest and the middle class.
And now, the youth movement is at the center of Sunday's national elections, alongside questions about painful austerity measures that Portugal must face in return for a 78 billion euro international bailout amid mounting debts.
History lesson from Facebook generation
Paula, João, Alexandro and Antonio are between 24 and 28 years old. In Coimbra, the city where they all studied International Relations, these lively members of the Facebook generation tasted the country's economic woes.
"I'm 27 years old and I'm doing an internship with an NGO. My mother is unemployed, my grandmother struggles with a small pension and my little brother is looking for a job," says Paula Gil. "The lack of job security is passed down from generation to generation. We are fighting for fair wages and contracts, as well as for the rights for employment and education."
Gil, a small and energetic woman with dark hair, smiles as she recounts her country's history. "The Portuguese democracy, born after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, is still a young democracy," she explains. "It was born out of a new idea. We need to move forward by combining it with civil society."
During the first demonstrations, M12M activists – the March 12 Movement is the new name given to this protest movement – handed out questionnaires to the protesters to ask them to suggest "an idea that would change things." The list of proposals and grievances were reread, edited and shaped into a document that was brought to the famously independent President of the National Assembly Jaime Gama, and are now slated to be used as the basis of a piece of legislation to address Portugal's lack of steady employment.
In the run-up to the June 5 legislative elections, all the political parties are paying court to the M12M. And the group's members insist that they will press the future elected members to draft a law which is in accordance with what they have called "the project of people's initiative."
Are the political parties on board?
Like any postmodern entities, it is difficult to describe the M12M with traditional political science tools. Paula and her friends' political views are close to the Left Bloc (BE), but they don't trust the political parties that "represent less and less the people who voted for them," or have permanently forgotten about their woes.
Nonetheless, they are pragmatic, so they refuse to challenge the political parties or trade unions they see as "partners' of their own strategy. They consider themselves a "cross-party movement," with some members from the right and a general support of candidates "who take care of their nation."
In addition to breaking the vicious circle of precarious employment, the M12M leaders have two other key priorities. First, is to push for a debt audit of their country, wary of the sway over Portugal's future held by the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and the European Commission following the bailout. They say Portugal needs to clearly assess the effects of the public deficits and speculation fueled by rating agencies in a so-called "debtocracy."
The movement's other priority is create a more participative democracy with greater use of the popular ballot initiative and the possibility for civic movements to run for legislative elections.
"Geração à rasca is a movement that comes from a post-partisan revolt," says political scientist Manuel Cabral. "Its members are not so much fighting against the party system, as they are looking for an approach that goes beyond it."
Cabral says the large political parties have been able to do little in the face of the recession. In effect, the Socialist Party, the Social Democrats (center-right) and the Democratic and Social Center (the far-right) have already settled on the winning party in Sunday's legislative elections when they all agreed to place Portugal's economy under international supervision with requirements of austerity measures as well as an extensive privatization plan and the dismantling of the employment rights authority. Whoever the citizens vote for on Sunday, says Cabral, the real winner will be the "coalition party" of the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
photo - Pedro Simoes