The lack of public debate in Portugal

When Portugal celebrates its 900th anniversary, 24 years from now, what kind of country will it be? And what country would we like it to be?

There are about 120 commentators and columnists in the Portuguese media, and TV networks have an overwhelming number of political analysis shows. We have pundits with more air time than the president or the prime minister. And numerous conferences, on the most varied topics, are held across the country on a daily basis.

Yet the country eschews debate.

Portugal is one of the five most indebted countries in the world, with a debt of 122% of its GDP, making it very vulnerable to external shocks. It's as if we were living at the foot of Merapi volcano and anxiously waiting for another eruption. About 70% of Portuguese families face financial difficulties. We are going through a crisis of representation, with post-1974 voters clearly disengaged from the current political system and dispossessed of causes and claims. We have a vulnerable banking system with one of the highest private debt levels in the EU. The country's increasingly multiracial and cosmopolitan character is yet to find adequate representation in places of power. Our democratic institutions - from Parliament to trade unions - live in the past tense.

Just like all other developed countries, we will soon be hit by the 4th Industrial Revolution, characterized by the convergence of digital, physical and biological technologies.

But there is no real national debate on these issues.

Our conversations with society have three characteristics. They are partisan: political tactics are discussed more than public policies. Collective discussion spaces, which abound, are almost entirely taken over by political party representatives whose message reflects the interests of each particular school. Having politicians on the public stage is only beneficial to democracy if the spaces of freedom and opinion which contribute to the preservation of the democratic system itself are not amputated. But in Portugal we have lost the balance.

Discussion spaces are also short-sighted. The day time's event is discussed in the evening. If you happen to re-watch political analysis shows from a couple of months ago, you will quickly realize that the topicality of these debates evaporates in a few days. The arguments - because of their content, but not necessarily because of their quality - have a low average life expectancy.

Moreover, few experts - and especially new experts - are invited for these shows. It is of course important to continue to count on the contribution of the deans of public opinion, but we now have the most qualified generation ever - the post-1974 generation. It is not empty boastfulness: we do have some of the greatest experts in many areas of knowledge. Many Portuguese professionals are more respected abroad than in their own country. We need to engage them in order to break the monopoly of generalist commentators and public figures over political discussion.

The dearth of plural discussion has been a feature of our country throughout the centuries.

At least four great moments have marked the Portuguese population in the 20th century. The 41-year-long dictatorship, the April 25 revolution with the subsequent decolonization process and the return of 500,000 citizens, the Europeanization of the country from 1986 onward, and, more recently, the austerity crisis. But despite the deep marks these periods have left in Portuguese society, none of them has been adequately debated on a national level.

This week, a study conducted by Porto University on the relationship of Portuguese youth with the European Union concluded that "there is a gap in the transmission of knowledge, in the acquisition of political knowledge and discernment among young people in schools." Eight weeks before the European elections, public initiatives by civil society on the various topics that dominate the European agenda are extremely rare.

And do we already have the capacity to discuss the country's democratization process with emotional independence? Did the Portuguese method of radicalization, punishment and settlement of scores bring any advantages compared to negotiated transitions, such as in Brazil and Spain?

Our lack of vocation for debate and difficulty in tolerating disagreement is reflected in the meager presence of think tanks. According to the most comprehensive survey on this topic - the University of Pennsylvania's 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report -, Portugal has fewer think tanks than Macedonia, Bolivia or Zimbabwe. About 10 times less than Argentina. None that draws the attention of the international community. It is a silent country.

We lack an engaged and dynamic civil society. Portuguese public opinion is not clustered nor institutionalized. We do not analyze, we do not influence, we do not block, we do not propose. Our individual and collective rights are discussed in power centers with a meager contribution from civil society and excessive influence from political parties. Portugal lacks left- and right-wing nonpartisan leaders. It lacks activists like Shaun King or Greta Thunberg. It lacks ONGs devoted to societal modernization and development. There is a lack of technical opinions, of alternative and independent perspectives, of public mobilization, of commitment to society, and of questioning.

Lack of strategic debate means that our hopes are put into the hands of a group of hundreds of politicians and subject to their spontaneity and ability to react. If our definition of the future continues to cover only one lunar cycle, we will be hostage to inefficiency, jeopardize creativity and innovation, and find it extremely difficult to mobilize the population for common causes.

Unlike Portugal, many countries have experienced extensive public debates. Emmanuel Macron has launched the 'Great National Debate,' concluded last week, with 70% of French people supporting the initiative, which aims to reflect on the major concerns of the population. Other countries have felt the need to materialize these discussions as long-term national strategies. The UAE launched the 'UAE Strategy for the Future' last year. In 2017 Chinese President Xi Jinping presented the 'Great Strategy' for the country, with a collective vision reaching as far as 2050. One would think that only authoritarian countries can afford to establish long-term strategies that are impervious to electoral cycles. But this is a common process in democratic regimes as well. Sweden has been doing this for a long time. In 2002, during Göran Persson's administration, Sweden was one of the first countries to launch a 'National Strategy for Sustainable Development'.

*Rodrigo Tavares is the founder and president of Granito Group. His academic career includes the universities of Harvard, Columbia, Gothenburg, and California-Berkeley. He was nominated Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.

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