Portugal's Austerity Champion Coelho Shows Rajoy Victory Path

  • Coelho re-elected after years of tax rises and spending cuts
  • Spanish and Irish governments face elections within months

Portugal’s Ruling Coalition Defeats Socialist

Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho proves there’s life after austerity for Europe’s politicians.

Coelho’s coalition won 99 of the 230 seats in Sunday’s national election, with four seats still to be allocated. Though the 51-year-old Social Democrat leader lost the parliamentary majority he enjoyed for the last four years, he comfortably leads the Socialist opposition, which has 85 seats so far.

Portuguese bonds rose, with the 10-year yield dropping to the lowest in five months. The country’s PSI-20 stock index climbed as much as 1.7 percent in early trading on Monday.

Coelho’s victory follows on the heels of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras re-election last month, after the anti-austerity crusader agreed to international demands in return for more aid. Both Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Irish premier Enda Kenny face elections within months, and are fighting off insurgent parties demanding a reversal of tax increases and spending cuts. Rajoy on Sunday night tweeted his congratulations to Coelho.

“The defeat for Portugal’s Socialists is music to the ears of Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy,” said Nicholas Spiro, managing director of Spiro Sovereign Strategy in London. “Portugal’s center-left was conspicuously unable to come up with a credible and compelling anti-austerity narrative.”

Coelho led the first coalition government to survive a full term in office since a four-decade-long dictatorship ended in 1974, and he was able to implement austerity without triggering the rise of parties such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and Sinn Fein in Ireland.

Confidence Vote

Under Coelho’s stewardship, Portugal raised taxes on everything from wages to diesel cars, reduced spending by 11 billion euros ($12.3 billion) and exited an international bailout last year.

“It’s impressive that the ruling coalition survived after four years of budget cuts and tax increases,” said Ramiro Loureiro, a Lisbon-based analyst at Banco Comercial Portugues SA’s Millennium unit. “We can say that it’s a vote of confidence in these very painful measures. This will be very well received by investors.”

Nevertheless, after losing his majority, Coelho has to rely on his enemies waving through key policies overhauling the economy, one of the poorest in the euro region.

“You don’t want a government with a weak position in parliament,” said Steven Santos, a broker at Banco de Investimento Global SA in Lisbon. “You want a coalition that can govern without having to jump hurdles every step of the way.”

Short-lived

The nation’s minority administrations tend to be short-lived. It’s more than 15 years since Socialist leader Antonio Guterres led the only minority government in Portugal to survive a full term since the dictatorship ended.

“Whoever is in opposition will always be tempted to block policies in parliament in order to score political points,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London. “The 2017 budget will probably be the first obvious signpost testing the ability of the next government to survive beyond its first year in office.”

The opposition may hold off bringing the government down quickly, rather than risk irritating voters and investors looking for stability. Portuguese 10-year bonds yield 2.3 percent, compared with 18 percent three years ago at the height of Europe’s debt crisis.

“By sticking with the coalition, Portuguese voters are telling Europe that they haven’t turned their backs on the policies that placed their country on the path of recovery,” said Pedro Ricardo Santos, a broker at X-Trade Brokers DM SA in Lisbon.

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