Two women have become part of Portugal’s election campaign whether they like it or not. Helena Paixão and Teresa Pires want to get married. But same-sex marriages are not allowed in Portugal. Last July Portugal’s constitutional court ruled against their request.
The country is overwhelmingly Catholic, and the latest opinion poll shows most Portuguese are still against same-sex marriages.
So it is a surprise that the ruling centre-left Socialist party has included a proposal to permit these marriages in its campaign platform for this month’s general election.
But Teresa is not holding her breath:
“There have always been homosexuals in Portugal and they have already struggled , but the politicians haven`t wanted to get involved , for them it`s a minefield.
One thing is for sure. If they ran with the idea, all those who are homophobic wouldn`t vote for them. So two things happen, either they try and grab our votes, as the media says there`s a lot of us, or they try and see how they can go without turning off the others.”
For Prime Minister José Socrates making same-sex marriage part of his campaign manifesto seems something of a gamble.
He is currently neck and neck in opinion polls with the opposition centre-right party candidate Manuela Ferreira Leite who heads the Social Democratic Party or SDP.
Socrates has been dogged by alleged corruption scandals and criticism that his election campaign is little different from the opposition.
In this sort of political climate it is believed that smaller political parties, especially those from the left, will play a key role in any future Portuguese government.
For Nuno Saraiva of the “Diario de Noticias” daily paper, the same-sex marriage issue is an attempt to get votes from the far left:
“It`s a red-line issue, that shows the split between right and left. But it`s also a windbreak, sheltering candidates from the really essential questions. In any case , just as the early days of the campaign showed us, it won`t be a central theme.”
But what is central to the election campaign is the economic crisis and pulling Portugal out of its third recession in six years.
Unemployment has doubled over the past three years – Now 12.3 percent of the working population.
Socrate’s Socialist government has been blamed for tough reforms and supporters have criticized his privatizations as a step too far to the right.
But the centre-right SDP is not seen as much better. In their campaign manifesto, they have vowed not to promise anything they cannot deliver.
A lot of empty words and vast slogans according to people working here at Lisbon’s popular Ribeira Market.
For them, there is little love lost for either centre party:
“They should come and see some misery, come and see those who don`t sleep at night. Now I have to sleep in the afternoons. That’s not a life for a 72 year-old. I`ve worked here since I was 13.”
“They`re all the same. I`ve decided not to vote for any of them.”
“It`s the same one who`ll win. Or the other. It`s always the same , PS or PSD, PSD or PS, and the orchestra`s made for them both.”
Luis Leita used to make spark plugs for Alcoa. The factory shut two years ago. Today he is unemployed. He will vote for the communist party which is expected to win 10 percent of the vote.
For him, the main political parties, known as the centre bloc, are out of touch with those who have to live on 450 euros a month – Portugal’s minimum wage:
“I don`t know if the two big parties will form a coalition , but it`s true that the differences between them aren`t so great. So, to the worker`s regret, it could happen.”
With neither main party expected to win an absolute majority, political pundits are pointing to the smaller parties as potential kingmakers.
The third biggest party is the “Bloco de Esquerda” or “Left Bloc”.
It is au avowedly extreme leftwing grouping including the communists, and is expected to win some 20 percent of the vote.
Franciso Louçã heads the bloc. He says what happened at the European Parliamentary elections is a key message for the main parties:
“The reason why we broke through in the European elections, taking nearly half of the votes from the Socialists, the ruling absolute majority government, is above all because the social crisis has revealed the very serious economic delinquance in key areas of the finance sector, and the consequent sharpening of inequalities in the EU`s most inequal member state. The gap between rich and poor is the widest in the EU.”
It is estimated that two million Portuguese live in poverty. That is a high percentage for a country of just under 11 million people, a country which of course has greatly benefited from the European Union, which it joined in 1986.
But it is also seen as a microcosm for what is going on in many other EU countries. Voters, confronted with a global crisis, have lost confidence in their main parties.
Pedro Mota Soares is from the rightwing Popular Party. Like the left, his party also saw a rise in votes at last June’s European elections:
“The central bloc in Portugal, the two big parties, are both basically centre-left parties. They haven`t had good results. Their vote has even slipped if you compare them to other results in parliament. Other parties with other visions have been doing well. So it`s a sort of a protest vote against this two-party system which has a lock on power.”
Smaller parties are also expected to benefit from voter apathy: a feeling that no matter which party you vote for, not much will change the current economic landscape.
Unlike some of its EU neighbours to the east and north, Portugal has not suffered much from the housing and property development crisis.
But Portugal’s tourism industry has not been spared. The sector which accounts for more than 10 percent of the country’s GDP saw a 25 percent decline in business last year.
For this hotel manager in Lisbon, politicians are an easy target when business is bad:
“Governments fighting elections have to answer questions for which they may not have the answers. That`s because the problem, the main cause of the situation Europe finds itself in is the international crisis. It’s not the government`s lack of ability to manage.”
Nuno Saraiva agrees:
“There`ll be a protest vote allied with the big parties`inability to mobilise their electorates. That`s because they`re unhappy, and not prepared to deliver an absolute majority again.”
Less than two weeks ago, an opinion poll claimed the election race was too close to call, and both main parties have refused to say whether they would form a grand coalition.
This means that like other EU countries trying to reduce spending and public deficits, a minority government may have its hands tied – paving the way for potential rough seas in an uncertain political climate.