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National News

March 1, 2013

INTERNATIONAL: Austerity triggers novel protests in Portugal

LISBON, Portugal — A Portuguese revolutionary song from 40 years ago is haunting the bailed-out country's government.

Anti-austerity protesters are hounding senior officials by loudly singing at public events a celebrated tune from the 1974 Carnation Revolution. They have managed to silence some of their targets, including the prime minister when he was trying to give a speech in Parliament.

At the same time, people are putting the prime minister's name and tax number on their store receipts. That makes it possible, in theory at least, that Pedro Passos Coelho's spending will outstrip his official income and leave him liable for an end-of-year tax assessment.

Portuguese unhappy about the center-right government's relentless austerity drive aren't just getting mad, they're getting even — in imaginative ways.

The government is locked into debt-cutting measures in return for the ailing country's €78 billion ($102 billion) financial rescue in 2011. More tax hikes this year sliced another chunk off wages. The result: public outrage has mounted as living standards have tumbled.

After winter weather discouraged street protests and with strikes petering out amid falling income, dissenters in Portugal have formed civic movements which have come up with new ways of retaliating against their leaders' unpopular policies.

People in other European countries stricken by the eurozone financial crisis appear no less disaffected.

In Italy's national elections last weekend Beppe Grillo — a comedian with no political experience whose blog fed off public discontent with austerity — and his 5 Star Movement collected almost a quarter of the votes cast. In Spain, "Surround Parliament" protests take aim at what are perceived as discredited politicians amid a 26 percent unemployment rate.

"There's a broad feeling of powerlessness" among aggrieved Europeans, says Antonio Costa Pinto, a political scientist at Lisbon University's Institute of Social Science. "With few resources, (the civic movements) can make a big impact."

In Portugal, civic movements whose message travels quickly on social media have to a degree eclipsed trade unions, traditionally in the vanguard of protests. Those movements are behind protest marches planned Saturday in more than 20 Portuguese cities that are expected to draw big crowds.

They are trying to persuade the government to reverse course by jettisoning austerity policies and switching focus to state-fueled economic growth and job creation. Even so, while the protests have earned headline media coverage, the government shows no sign of budging.

The new wellspring of protests and the novel style of the dissent are another sign of social and cultural changes that have accompanied the financial crisis. The downbeat period has stripped away long-standing entitlements and modified the habits of many Europeans.

The Portuguese aren't short of reasons to grumble. The country is forecast to weather a third straight year of recession in 2013. Unemployment has ballooned to a record 17.6 percent, the European Union's statistics office said Friday. And an avalanche of tax increases and welfare cuts shows no sign of letting up as the government looks for another €4 billion to cut.

The recent mischief is needling politicians who are viewed as deaf to appeals for less hardship. "It helps achieve an aim, which is to grind down the government," said Costa Pinto, the political scientist.

Among the many makeshift movements that have sprung up in recent times the most vociferous and talked-about is one called "Screw the troika - We want our lives back." Mostly young people fill its ranks. They are the ones with plenty to complain about: the jobless rate among Portuguese under-25s rate stands at 40 percent.

The group, which stresses it has peaceful aims, has dogged officials with its full-throated public renditions of "Grandola, Vila Morena" (Grandola, Dusky Town).

A radio broadcast of that folk song was the night-time signal in 1974 for mutinous troops to rise up against Portugal's four-decade dictatorship. The Carnation Revolution brought democracy and set Portugal on the path to European Union membership.

The song was recorded by Portuguese musician Zeca Afonso in 1971. It is a slow-tempo ballad, with stirring lyrics and a catchy refrain. The lyrics seem dated — they speak of a "land of fraternity" and, slightly ominously, caution that "The people have the final word" — but feel suited to the current times.

Protesters recently sang it from the public gallery when the prime minister was addressing Parliament, forcing him to stop and wait for them to finish. A half-dozen other members of the Cabinet have also had to listen to it at public engagements.

Government officials have acted bemused, but their discomfort is evident.

The same protest group has also inspired a resurgence of irreverent political graffiti along Lisbon streets, where huge colorful murals have appeared. Last weekend, dozens of people — ranging from children to pensioners — joined in the painting of a 13-meter (42-feet) by 13-meter mural calling people to Saturday's protests.

"It was really moving," said 41-year-old filmmaker Alexandre Azinheira, who designed the mural. With his retired parents unable to meet mortgage payments on their home due to pension cuts, he said he was spurred to act because the government had "betrayed" the Portuguese.

Another group, the White Revolution Movement, came up with the idea of putting officials' names on store receipts after the government threatened to punish anyone who didn't ask for a receipt for financial transactions. It was part of a crackdown on tax evasion by businesses.

The prime minister's personal tax number went around by email and cellphone text message and can now be seen on photographs of receipts posted on the group's Facebook page. Media reports claim receipts worth millions of euros now feature the tax number of government ministers — even though providing a fake receipt name carries a risk of up to three years in prison.

The Finance Ministry did not reply to a request for comment.

"We never thought it'd take off like this," the movement's leader Paulo Romeira said. "People leapt on board to show their disgust with the political class that has led us to where we stand today."

Passos Coelho, the prime minister, insists the protesters are an unrepresentative minority. "We shouldn't mistake a tree for a forest," he told reporters last week.

The response on Facebook didn't take long: a poster advertising Saturday's marches announced, "We are the forest."

 

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