Dan Hannan and Owen Jones are both wrong on Portugal

One unexpected benefit of increased Euroskepticism is that Britons have begun to take greater interest in the politics of other European countries.

As someone who teaches the politics of other European countries, I'm heartened by this.

I'm less heartened by the way in which individuals misinterpret other countries’ politics to prove particular political points.

The outcome of the recent Portuguese elections is a case in point. Here’s how Dan Hannan interpreted a Telegraph article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:

A second “benefit” of increased Euroskepticism is the way in which left and right have become awkward bedfellows. Here's Owen Jones on the same article:

Unfortunately, the fact that a particular interpretation is widely shared by people of wildly different political affiliations does not necessarily mean that it’s true. In this case, the facts are these:

  1. In the elections of the 4th, no single party secured a majority. The incumbent right-wing Social Democrats (PSD) and their allies the CDS won the most votes and the most seats, but failed to win an overall majority. Their main challengers, the Socialists (PS) improved their vote and seat share, but the big winners were the Left Bloc (BE).
  2. Prior to the elections, the PS had not discussed a pre-electoral alliance with the Left Bloc or the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). However, once it became clear that these parties had won a majority of the vote (50.75%) and a majority of seats (122 of 230), negotiations began.
  3. The Portuguese constitution gives the President of the Republic the task of “appoint the Prime Minister after consulting the parties with seats in Assembly of the Republic and in the light of the electoral results” (Art. 187).
  4. The current President is Anibal Cavaco Silva, the most successful leader the right-wing PSD has ever had.
  5. On the 22nd, the President gave the leader of the PSD, Pedro Passos Coelho, the task of forming the next government, as some had expected he might.
  6. In the speech explaining this decision, the President explained that in all previous elections, the task of forming the government went to the party with the most seats, even where that party did not have a legislative majority. He gave the example of the 2009 election, where the PS formed a government.
  7. The President went on to say:
“However, the appointment of the Prime Minister by the President of the Republic does no finalize the process of forming a Government. The final decision belongs to Parliament or, more precisely, to the Members of Parliament. The rejection of the Government Programme, by an absolute majority of Members of Parliament, implies its resignation”.

8. The President also said:

“Outside the European Union Portugal’s future would be catastrophic.
In 40 years of democracy, the Portuguese governments never depended from anti-European political factions, that is, of the political factions which, in the electoral manifestos with which they presented themselves to the Portuguese, defended the repeal of the Lisbon Treaty, of the Budgetary Treaty, of the Banking Union and of the Pact of Stability and Growth, as well as the dismantlement of the Economic and Monetary Union and Portugal’s exit from the Euro, and, still further, the dismemberment of NATO, of which Portugal is a founder member”.

These remarks were directed against the the PCP, which has proposed exit from the Eurozone and NATO.

This all means that the EU has not prevented Leftist parties from forming a government. The EU did nothing. The Portuguese President made a decision. He decided to ask an (1) incumbent PM who is (2) leader of the party with the most seats and who is (3) of the same party as the President, to form a government. If the right is unsuccessful, then the government will be voted down, and the left will have the chance to put together an alternative.

I'm not writing this to say that Cavaco Silva's decision was the right one — I'm just saying that he would have taken the same decision irrespective of the EU. Often, there is no right or obvious answer to the question, "who won the election?". But if Cavaco Silva's decision is wrong, then it will be righted automatically by the actions of Parliament in less than a fortnight's time. If that happens, the alarmists will have been proven wrong. Unfortunately, attention will likely have moved on.

In all, there's nothing in this episode that can't be explained by reference to Portuguese politics — or even by reference to common theories of prime ministerial designation. But Euroskeptics like Hannan, and leftists like Jones, have chosen to interpret it in a way which fits their own views. When it comes to British Euroskeptics' comments on other countries, they always think the song is about them.