“Krakende wagen,” suggested a Dutch Labor Party delegation on a recent fact-finding trip. “Brinquebalante” was the French version put forward by presidential candidate Benoît Hamon as he passed through searching for inspiration to improve poll ratings that have him finishing in fourth place.
Hamon and others hope that some of the success enjoyed by Prime Minister António Costawill rub off on them. But few would have bet on Costa being the poster boy of the European left.
“Geringonça” — which in English roughly translates as “contraption” — was coined by a conservative critic to ridicule the coalition cobbled together in late 2015 by Costa and two parties on the hard left.
Opponents seemed sure the rickety mechanism was doomed to fall apart as Costa sought to meet apparently contradictory goals: rolling back austerity to appease his leftist backers; and sticking to budgetary restraint demanded by eurozone partners and international lenders.
Unlikely success story
If confirmed, Portugal’s 2016 budget deficit of 2.1 percent of gross domestic product will be the lowest since democracy was restored in 1974. Unemployment, which topped 17 percent in 2013, is set to fall into single figures this year for the first time in eight years.
Small wonder that Europe’s beleaguered socialists are beating a path to Lisbon to discover Costa’s secret.
“What’s happening in Portugal inspires me so much,” Hamon said during his 36-hour visit.
“I wanted my first foreign trip to be Portugal. That’s a political choice. This is a country run by a government of the left, supported by a coalition of the left, a country that has turned its back on austerity,” he told the Lisbon daily Público in an interview published Sunday. “In Portugal, the left decided it wanted to win, it united to achieve that, and it’s in government. I want to win and unite the left to govern.”
“António Costa’s experience is very useful for us. We want an alliance with the Greens and with the progressive forces on the left,” Pittella told TSF radio. “It is possible to form an alliance even with the most radical progressive forces, if we keep within the framework of support for a European position.”
Europe’s socialists, however, are likely to find transposing the geringonça concept is harder than translating the word.
Several particularly Portuguese factors facilitated the formation of Lisbon’s left-wing alliance.
The country — which emerged from four decades of right-wing dictatorship in 1974 — has escaped the surge of far-right populism that’s complicating politics almost everywhere else in Europe.
With the Socialists in the driving seat, Costa was able to persuade the PCP and BE to set aside their more radical demands — such as leaving NATO, tearing up the eurozone rule book and demanding a renegotiation of the outsized national debt — in return for kicking the center-right out of power and a limited rollback of the previous government’s austerity measures.
“This Portuguese new model with a minority Socialist government and radical left support is only possible because the radical left made a very big step,” said Reinhard Naumann, Lisbon representative of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a think tank affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of Germany. “The Socialists almost didn’t have to move. The agreement excluded everything that may have detonated the geringonça.”
Not all left parties are alike
Things are more complicated in France, where a first-round presidential vote is scheduled for April 23. Hamon trails in polls behind the far right’s Marine Le Pen, liberal upstart Emmanuel Macron and mainstream conservative François Fillon.
The Dutch Labor Party (PvdA), which had a delegation on a reconnaissance mission in Lisbon last month, is faring even worse.
Currently a junior partner in a coalition with the center-right, the party is predicted to drop from second to fifth place in parliamentary elections next month, losing over two-thirds of its seats. Even with at least 11 parties likely to win places in the parliament, it’s hard to see how the PvdA could play a lead role forging a left-of-center coalition.
Germany is perhaps the country where the Portuguese case is most relevant.
The Social Democrats (SPD) are currently surging in polls under new leader Martin Schulz. They could, on paper at least, stitch together a deal with the Greens and the Left party to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel and replace the SPD’s long-standing “grand coalition” with her center-right Christian Democrats.
Germany’s central position in the EU and NATO would also make it harder for the left to follow the Portuguese radicals in shelving their opposition to capitalism, the euro and the Atlantic alliance as part of a post-election arrangement with the SPD.
“If you look at the German situation, it would be much more difficult for the radical left to accept,” said Naumann. “This would be from the start a completely different situation.”
Critics of the Portuguese government point out that the economic performance has been helped by one-off deficit reduction measures and soaring tourism — boosted by security concerns in other destinations.
And despite some good news, Portugal’s debt rose to a massive 130 percent of GDP last year, leaving the country painfully exposed to external shocks.
The banking sector remains shaky after a series of costly bailouts. Growth is healthier than for many years at 1.9 percent, but still lags well behind rivals like Spain and Ireland. Data that made headlines at the weekend showed Lithuania on course to become the latest European country to overtake Portugal in terms of GDP per capita.
Such factors mean the geringonça remains fragile.
The affair underscored the Socialists’ dependence on the far-left parties as they struggled to deflect opposition efforts to remove the main architect of government economic policy.
Despite the vulnerability, the government has pulled off what many thought was impossible. Besides keeping the left and Brussels happy, there is an undoubted improvement in the national mood after the gloom of the austerity era. Consumer confidence is at the highest level in 17 years, according to data released at the end of last month.
“I’ve been surprised,” Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the country’s center-right president, told TVI television Monday. “When I took office, I never thought [the government coalition] would be able to meet international commitments as it has done … I didn’t think it would be so resistant.”
Rebelo de Sousa, who remains hugely popular a year after his election to the largely ceremonial but high-profile role of president, has adopted a cheerful cohabitation with Costa which has added to the country’s stability.
Portugal’s position may be impossible to replicate, but with socialists faring so badly elsewhere in Europe, it’s easy to see why so many are keen to find out if at least some components of the geringonça are available for export.