Revolution of Pigs
It’s been a scorching summer in Portugal. As the mercury crossed 40°C in some parts, hospitals were put on red alert and a national heat wave contingency plan activated. Mid-August, the searing weather sparked a series of wildfires in the northern and central regions. The infernos were so intense, Portugal had to ask neighbouring France and Spain to send personnel to help battle the flames. Portugal’s Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests estimated that 75,000 acres of forest have been destroyed this year.
The temperatures have been just as fiery in the political arena. In July, Portugal seemed headed for a snap election after members of the centre-right coalition that has been in power since 2011 squabbled about the biting austerity measures imposed on Portugal by the ‘troika’: the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Though a compromise was reached, the coalition is fragile and public anger still smouldering over the 16 per cent unemployment rate and deep cuts in social benefits.
As the country looks to privatise even more services (the postal network and national airline TAP are up for grabs), the austerity measures are being debated vigorously in the run-up to the elections on September 29 to 308 municipalities. Across Portugal, hoardings have appeared with candidates promising change. Armies of volunteers have taken to the streets to persuade voters about the merits of this or that slate of candidates.
One hot afternoon recently, I had a long discussion with a particularly enthusiastic left party worker on the main street of the university town of Coimbra. For the first time since World War II, he said, Europeans were facing widespread hunger and homelessness. He predicted that beleaguered citizens would demonstrate their disapproval of the troika’s austerity plans by voting out incumbents in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. “Just like in 1984,” he said, reaching for an Orwellian metaphor, “we’re about to witness the revolution of the pigs.”
Even as politicians have become the target of invective, one public figure who seems certain to retain his seat is Lisbon mayor Antonio Costa. He is evidence of Portugal’s old connection with India: of Goan descent, the mayor is the son of the respected poet and novelist Orlando da Costa, who arrived in Portugal as a student. Da Costa Sr had become a member of the Communist Party in 1954, joining the battle against the Salazar dictatorship. Antonio Costa was elected to parliament in 1991 at the age of 30. Before taking charge as mayor in 2007, he held a seat in the European Parliament and served as minister for internal affairs, the second-most important government position. Unless something dramatically goes wrong, a former European Commission official told me, it’s only a matter of time before Costa becomes Portugal’s prime minister. “The position is his for the taking,” the official said.
Dressed Down PM
Amidst the gloom, some good news. The tourist sector, which accounts for almost 16 per cent of Portugal’s GDP, saw strong growth with holidaymakers from around the world seeking bargains on the recession-hit beaches. The Portuguese press reported breathlessly on some of the more prominent arrivals, including the bountiful Pamela Anderson and Cliff Richard, the seemingly ageless Indian-born British pop singer.
Also vacationing in the southern Algarve region was British premier David Cameron, photographed holding hands with wife Samantha while shopping for fish in a local market. Despite attempts to look relaxed in his Uniqlo shorts and loafers sans socks, Cameron failed to win the British press’s approval. Grumbled The Daily Mail, “Our chillaxing PM is, sartorially, still a fish out of water.”
Go Goa Gone
The surge in the number of Goans applying for Portuguese citizenship—some 2,000 since 2011—has, strangely, caused consternation in Britain. When India took over Goa in 1961 in an event Indians call Liberation but Portuguese call the Invasion, Portugal determined that residents of its overseas territory had acquired Indian citizenship involuntarily. So, Goans born before 1961 and their children are eligible for Portuguese citizenship. The idea of living in Portugal held little appeal for Goans, until it joined the European Union. As EU rules allow citizens of member-states to live and work anywhere in the region, increasing numbers of Goans have been applying for the red Portuguese passport and heading straight to the UK. On arrival, they and their families are immediately eligible for state benefits. This was highlighted in a research paper by British think-tank Migration Watch in June. “This is a loophole that must be closed,” its chairman Andrew Green, declared.
I’ve never been to a country in which souvenir shops sell fridge magnets bearing the faces of literary figures. Portuguese tourist kitsch includes images not just of Nobel-winner Jose Saramago but also of the poets Pessoa and Camoes.
Bombay-based writer and journalist Naresh Fernandes is the author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot; E-mail your diarist: naresh.fernandes AT gmail.com