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Portugal's Ruling Coalition Prevails As Country Votes In What Amounts To Austerity Referendum

 

The results from Portugal's elections are beginning to trickle in and according to exit polls, Coelho's coalition has prevailed. Via Bloomberg:
  • Ruling coalition of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho wins 38%-43% of vote and 108-116 seats, RTP TV station exit poll indicates
  • Opposition Socialists win 30%-35% of vote and 80-88 seats: RTP exit poll
  • Exit polls by TV stations SIC, TVI also indicate ruling coalition won election

Full preivew

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Greece’s protracted bailout negotiations with creditors is that for the troika (which has since been rebranded the “quadriga”), it wasn’t just about whether or not Athens could table a credible plan to set Greece on a path to fiscal sustainability.

In fact, the idea that Greece ever had any hope of turning the tide and avoiding a future wherein Athens is forever relegated to the status of “German debt colony” is in many respects laughable, which speaks to the fact that what the IMF, Brussels, and Berlin really wanted to do in the course of their negotiations with Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis was send a message to Spain and Portugal ahead of elections that threatening to disprove the notion of the euro’s indissolubility is not a viable strategy when it comes to securing bargaining power. 

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s victory over Greece in Brussels and the subsequent abandonment of the Greek referendum “no” vote by Tsipras served notice that the troika is willing to effectively subvert the democratic process in order to uphold German values when it comes to fiscal rectitude. 

On Sunday, we got the first test of Europeans’ collective tolerance for German economic hegemony when Portugal headed to the polls in what amounts to a referendum on austerity although in reality, it's not clear that voters truly have much of a choice. Here’s WSJ:

Portuguese voters cast ballots Sunday in an election to determine whether Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, who oversaw a bailout program that averted bankruptcy but imposed harsh austerity on the country, will keep his job or relinquish it to his Socialist rival.

 

The governing center-right coalition—which joins Mr. Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party with the smaller Democratic and Social Center Party—was slightly ahead of the Socialist party, led by former Lisbon Mayor Antonio Costa, in pre-election polls.

 

Both major candidates promised to abide by the eurozone’s standards of financial discipline. But neither was expected to gain a majority of parliament’s 230 seats, and that would leave Portugal with a minority government struggling to sustain an economic recovery.

 

After taking office in 2011, Mr. Passos Coelho raised taxes and cut public-sector salaries and spending in education and health to meet budget targets set by international lenders under the €78 billion ($87 billion) rescue. The measures drove down the budget deficit from close to 10% of gross domestic product to about 3% estimated for this year, but hurt the prime minister’s popularity.

 

Until late August, polls gave the Socialists a slight lead over Mr. Passos Coelho’s coalition. But as undecided voters made up their minds in the campaign’s closing weeks, surveys indicated that sentiment was swinging the other way.

 

Mr. Passos Coelho’s campaign preached a consistent message of improvement since Portugal’s exit from the bailout program in May 2014. The jobless rate has fallen from a peak of 17% to close to 12%, and gross domestic product is expected to grow 1.6% this year. The prime minister reminded voters that the Socialists had been forced to seek the bailout after leading Portugal to the brink of insolvency four years ago.

Of course the recent inclusion of the Novo Banco bailout in Portugal’s budget nearly doubled the country’s deficit, raising questions about the veracity of the “improvement” in the Lisbon’s finances.

Here's Pedro Magalhães, a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon on why, much like voters in Greece's latest elections, the Portuguese electorate has been left to "choose" between parties who intend to deliver more of the same despite the apparent differences in their campaign promises:

The government parties are getting clobbered, but a modest economic recovery seems to have prevented their core support from being fundamentally undermined. They had a chance that other parties in Europe that led austerity drives did not (think the Socialists of PASOK in Greece): a cohesive parliamentary majority, a somewhat better and more tolerantly designed adjustment program (with less terrible starting conditions, of course), some of the harshest measures blocked by the Constitutional Court (arguably with positive economic effects), and quantitative easing from the ECB at the right time to allow them to have something to show for in terms of recovery by the end of the term.

 

True, the Socialists too have evaded the fate of other parties that were punished earlier over the Great Depression in Europe (think the Spanish center-left PSOE, today still below their already disastrous 2011 result).

 

However, they seem unable to fulfill what seemed to be their potential. To be fair, they did try to work on the economic competence problem, preparing an arguably serious economic policy platform, with the help of definitely serious people.

 

But here’s what may be the problem with “policy platforms” in Portugal these days. Austerity may have taught something to the electorates of the peripheral European countries: As Armingeon and Baccaro argue, although “democracy means that citizens choose among policy options, either directly or through their representatives,” “in the case of the sovereign debt crisis, however, there is no real choice either for country governments or for their citizens” (p. 256).

 

If the room to maneuver for parties in any government in a small and peripheral economy like Portugal’s is constrained, and if the real decisions are made in Brussels or Berlin, why would voters care about parties’ “policy platforms”? It’s visible performance, the recent past, and the fear of returning to the worst part of it, which seem to matter for voters. And there, things work as badly – and in some respects perhaps even worse – for the Socialists than they do for the Portuguese center-right.

And here's Deutsche Bank's election preview:

Portugal is due to hold its first post-bailout election on Sunday 4 October. The ruling centre-right coalition of PSD and CDS-PP had lagged the opposition Socialists (PS) for most of the last three years. However, this has turned around over the summer.  

 

In September the formal coalition (PAF) of PSD and CDS-PP has been achieving 35-40% of the popular vote in most polls, giving it a lead of around 5% on PS. This is still short of the slightly over 40% likely required to achieve an outright majority in parliament but given the uncertainty of the polls and the large share of undecided voters, neither a centre-right absolute majority nor a better performance by the PS can be ruled out.  

 

A majority centre-right government would be the most market friendly outcome in ensuring policy continuity and political stability. However, other possible scenarios – minority centre-right government, grand coalition, Socialist government – need not be major negatives.  

 

The policy differences between the two mainstream parties are relatively small and both accept Portugal’s existing European commitments. Short-term political uncertainty could ensue post-election but this should be manageable given the sovereign’s solid financing position. The more dangerous, although in our view unlikely, outcome is that a very politically unstable government emerges, which struggles to achieve policy progress.  

 

The weekend’s election stands apart from other periphery political risk events given the high likelihood of policy continuation regardless of the political outcome. As a result, from a markets perspective we do not believe these elections warrant an additional risk premium, although there could be some shorter term volatility in the unlikely scenario that a government cannot quickly be formed.  

 

Looking past the election, we maintain our constructive view on PGBs. From a fundamental perspective we find Portugal the most attractive periphery while the potential for additional ECB QE along with a 2016 upgrade to investment grade should also support PGBs into the New Year. 

Finally, here's Citi's take:

Portuguese Elections: A Mainstream Political Battle

Portuguese electors are also voting on October 4 to elect 230 representatives for the Assembly of the Republic. The Portuguese elections are not creating the same concern as those in Greece or Spain, given the lack of anti-establishment movements (like Podemos or Syriza) and the similarity in policy agenda of the two mainstream parties. Yet the outcome remains uncertain. The latest polls suggest a close race between the incumbent centre-right coalition, formed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the People’s Party (CDS-PP), and the main opposition Socialist Party (PS). The socialists’ lead has been eroding steadily, from 7pp in Oct-2014 to 1pp in Mar-2015, standing within the margin of error on average in the latest polls (see Figure 9). The latest poll by Aximage (conducted in early-Sep) projects support for the centre-right coalition at 38.9% (up from 37.8% in a survey by the same agency conducted in July), and standing well above the 33.3% support estimated for the socialists (down from 38% in July). Support for other political formations in opposition has remained broadly stable in recent months, just below 10% for the Democratic Unitarian Coalition (CDU) and 5% for the Left Bloc (BE).

 

At present it is highly unlikely that one of the two main political forces could gather enough share of the vote to secure an outright majority in Parliament. The Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva has noted on various occasions that the upcoming elections should produce a “stable and durable” government with a reliable majority. The PSD leader and current PM Passos Coelho also hinted at the possibility of finding a potential coalition agreement with socialists, arguing that party interests should not overshadow the national interest. We note that both parties have advocated continued fiscal consolidation (although with PS calling for a slightly higher fiscal deficit trajectory) and adherence to creditors’ post-bailout requirements. 


Our baseline is for the incumbent centre-right coalition to remain the largest group in Parliament, with support (either in a formal coalition or externally) from the socialist PS. We see little room for a potential alliance between PS and the other smaller left-wing parties which are likely to enter parliament (CDU and BE), reflecting key ideological differences — in particular given their objective of Eurozone exit as well as for demands for sovereign debt restructuring (both of which PS opposes). We expect that support for the incumbent government could rise further in the run-up to the elections. Overall we see little chance that such an administration could remain compliant with the fiscal consolidation path (envisaging exiting the Excessive Deficit Procedure in 2015) agreed with Brussels as well as regaining meaningful momentum on structural reform approval/implementation.