Portugal: How the Troika stole Christmas

20 December 2012
El País Madrid

The boardgame "Here comes the Troika."
The boardgame "Here comes the Troika."

The "Men in Black," or Troika of lenders from the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union, who offer bailouts in exchange for austerity, have become a source of humour. It is the basis of a new card game and advertisement, but the laughter hides fears that the situation will deteriorate in 2013.

In Lisbon, a new card game called "Here comes the Troika" is already on sale in several stores. The rules of the game are simple: players try to protect the millions they have won thanks to their influence peddling, they try to win elections and protect their positions before a malevolent card appears and ruins all of their plans. This nefarious card pictures three sinister-looking men in black, The Troika, come to seize their winnings.

In shopping malls, an advertisement announces a new credit plan allowing shoppers to pay for Christmas purchases in three payments. The slogan provides a hint of irony: If the Troika finds out..." In other words, it would be best if it did not know that, despite it all, we are wasting the little money we have left (or that it has left us).

In Portugal, recurring jokes and jests are used to stave off the economic and human stifling attributed to the Troika. The end of year festivities will be bleak. Civil servants will not get a Christmas bonus and, in January 2013, new measures and budget restrictions will be implemented.

Cost savings

This is the most controversial and restrictive budget bill the country has known in recent history. It includes a sharp hike in taxes, representing, on average, the equivalent of the loss of one month's salary. According to the Portuguese Confederation of Trade and Services, Portuguese trade will fall by 10 to 15 per cent in 2013 compared to 2012, which was already a disastrous year. Some merchants are very glum and say their sales have plummeted by 30 per cent. Taxi drivers who spend all day in the streets swear they have lost 40 per cent of their clients.

Magazines and television programmes are filled with tips on where to buy cheaply, how to find second-hand shops and hints on how to save money. Shops selling on consignment are popping up everywhere, recycling just about everything from clothes in good condition to items that can be resold forever.

In 2012, the economy slowed by 3 per cent over the year, consumer spending was down by 2 per cent and unemployment reached a record 16 per cent. Trade unions estimate that, in the past few years, the active workforce lost 10 per cent of its purchasing power. "And things will get worse in 2013," warns Arménio Carlos, general-secretary of the CGTP trade union confederation.

Things will get worse

That is why the Portuguese wonder how this disaster scenario will end. The Finance Minister, Vitor Gaspar, says that the first improvements will come in the second half of 2013. The problem is he said things would improve a year ago, yet, in 2012 the recession deepened. For the moment, everything suggests that things will get worse, much worse.

A part from the tax hike, the abolished bonuses and the apparition of a slew of new taxes which apply to a large portion of the Portuguese population, the government has also announced that, in February, it will present the Troika with a framework that provides savings of €4bn. The saving will be made by reducing public services, particularly in health and education. Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho warned, in a much talked about interview a few weeks ago, that he is seeking a way to make citizens pay – totally or in part – for their children's high school education.

Yet, all is not miserable. Pedro Passos Coelho, who usually announces bad news to the population on television, was questioned about macroeconomic issues during an official visit to Turkey on December 17 and he used the occasion to provide what today passes for good news: "For the first time in a long while, we are no longer on the edge of the cliff."

Factual or translation error? Tell us.