Young socialist calls for end to bread and circuses electioneering in Portugal

 In Events, ICPT, News

Portugal’s big challenge is to evolve from an electorate underpinned by a media driven by bread and circuses to one that is informed and supported by entities interested in investing in democracy.

That was the message of Miguel Costa Matos, a Portuguese parliamentary deputy and currently the youngest MP in Portugal at the time of his election in 2019 at the age of 26 who addressed the International Club of Portugal in Lisbon last week.

Currently the leader of Juventude Socialista (Socialist Youth), the youth branch of the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS), Miguel Costa Matos is certainly a socialist rising star to look out for in the years ahead.

Between 2017 and October 2019 he was an economic advisor in the office of former Prime Minister, António Costa, and in the run-up to the 2009 elections he helped draw up the PS party’s election manifesto.

As an MP he was involved in the creation of the Basic Climate Law, was elected President of the Federation of the Socialist Youth for the Urban Area of Lisbon in 2017 and 2019, and is also a parish councillor for Carcavelos and Parede and a Cascais municipal councillor.

Costa Matos also has gained experience sitting on the last government’s Budget and Finances Commission and Environment Commission.

But the question is if Costa Matos is just another career politician like so many before him who have risen up through the party ranks, but have never really actually started and run a company or made a name for themselves in anything else outside a law office or academia – I well remember the rise of José Sócrates and what hopes people pinned on him only to be disappointed. Self-made politicians are what is needed in Portugal. People who have some grasp of reality in the real world, people who ran a successful business, paid wages and learnt the hard way.

Politics is an expensive business, so is it any wonder that without a fortune behind them, so many career politicians fall into the temptation of receiving white envelopes under the table in return for lobbying, public contracts and opaque business deals.

In any case, Costa Matos may have a long time in waiting before any eventual ministerial post (perhaps environment) in a future PS government crops up since it also widely held that the AD Coalition will be a one-term government paving he way for the real hope of the PSD party, Lisbon’s current mayor, Carlos Moedas who is tipped to be a prime minister later in the decade.

Undoubtedly, Costa Matos is one of those new breed of future politicians who knew what they wanted early on. He distinguished himself in his early 20s at Warwick University siting on the Students’ Association and has now written a book — highly commendable indeed — ‘What now for Portugal? – 30 Ideas to Change the Country’ that covers questions such as reforming the State, the health of democracy, education, housing, economic growth and Portugal’s role in the world. All the same, yet another book to join the many written by politicians and economists from all sides of the political divide in Portugal that no-one remembers beyond a year.

In the book, the young MP suggests bold and specific proposals, which aim to reconcile realpolitik with ambition and has been published at a timely juncture in which Portugal is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 25 April Revolution which ended decades of dictatorship.

Calling on a reflection on the state of Portugal’s democracy — a democracy that has disillusioned so many that only around 50% of the electorate generally vote – Costa Matos notices that in the press and parliamentary debates the focus is on cases, events, and people, and says that the famous phrase from Eleanor Roosevelt “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people” was truer now than when she stated it in the 1930 or 40s (Actually, originally coined by Plato and later ascribed to Charles Stewart in 1901)

Is Portugal a partocracy?

“Do we want a democracy based on great ideas and thinkers and focusing on the great potential that our country has rather than the straw and froth of the day?” he asked stressing that the main role of democracy was discussing ideas.

And asked if the actual democratic culture of Portugal was not influenced or undermined by the way in which political parties are organised democratically?

Was Portugal a “partocracy” as argued by Italian political scientist Mauro Calise in 1994, the term often being derogatory, implying that parties have too much power. This has certainly been a complaint levelled at Portugal for decades and Portugal certainly has clear political clientelistic overtones.

“In business and professional careers we act according to a system of incentives, so why do we have an electoral system where the incentive is party obedience so that we can climb up the party ranks instead of valuing independent and critical thinkers and people who seek from society the support of people with knowledge. This is why we have to think about reforming our electoral system”, he said, adding that plans for reforms had been shelved for 20 years.

And then he said the electorate was tired of politicians who “promised much but delivered little” while the seat of a politician should not depend on a party vote but on the votes of the people who were indispensable to reform Portugal’s democracy.

Politics mediated by the media

But that wasn’t enough. Costa Matos said that Portugal’s democracy was “mediated by the media” and increasingly social networks. And at a time when the media was dependent on social networks for advertising revenues.

And so the merry-go-round goes on. The media are in the pockets of the advertisers and the politicians are in the pockets of big business.

“We’re seeing increasingly shorter news cycles, newspapers increasingly fed by “fake news” and sensationalism, and it is here that debating clubs and think tanks can inform and provide politicians with specialised support. We have in our democracy very few instruments to support decision making, communication and education” he said adding that in the US and UK there was special teams dedicated to this end and here it meant Portugal needed more mobilisation activities around democracy.

I must admit here I had visions of agitprop trains criss-crossing the country appealing to the rural masses in the interiors, but doubt the efficiency of the such mobilising measures among a people who are naturally suspicious of the motives of politicians to do anything other than feathering their own nests and continuing the clientele ridden party system driven by cronyism and ‘jobs for the boys’.

“In our country we are absolutely wedded to parties without structure, there are few civil and societal institutions and those that exist need for scale and support, while the media is increasingly reliant on those who will put some money in their purses to ensure the continuity and viability of the press”, he remarked.

But I also think the Portuguese electorate here are at fault too. They have allowed poor leadership in government and parties for years. The electorate has closed its eyes and allowed this to happen in return for wage increases, promises on housing, and all manner of things a poor country of just 10.8 million people and an annual budget of €1.547,70Bn will find difficult to cost.

This guy is bright, ambitious and dedicated, but he has, it seems, no business or economic experience of the real world — and why should he in his 20s — which is why it is imperative that he and his party affiliates of the future look to genuine real world entrepreneurial, civic, cultural and educational leaders to help them forge a more realistic and long-term blueprint for Portugal’s future and stop promising short term bread and circuses and pledges that can’t be delivered.

Portugal went to the polls on Sunday and in the early hours of Monday morning it was clear that the Democratic Alliance – a centre-right coalition of the PSD, CDS-PP and the PPM (Monarchist Party) led by PSD leader Luís Montenegro were neck-and-neck with the PS party in the results leading to a hung parliament. Meanwhile in third place the far-right Chega (Enough) party garnered 18% of the vote – 11% more than in 2022. The turnout was between 62 and 68%.

Photo: ICPT/Joaquim Morgado – President of the International Club of Portugal (ICPT) with guest speaker and leader of Socialist Youth, Miguel Costa Matos.