Portugal's prime minister plans more cuts to health and education spending

Pedro Passos Coelho chooses not to raise taxes again in order to meet stringent targets set by international lenders

Portugal's prime minister has announced plans for further cuts to health and education spending rather than raising taxes again, in order to meet tough targets set by international lenders after the constitutional court threw out budget measures on Friday.

"I shall instruct ministries to implement necessary reductions in functional spending to offset what the court ruling prohibited. It will certainly be a very difficult process," Pedro Passos Coelho said in a live broadcast on Sunday evening.. He added that while he respected the court, its ruling would hamper government plans to take back control of its own finances from international lenders next year.

The speech followed an emergency cabinet session on Saturday and a meeting between Passos Coelho and President Aníbal Cavaco Silva, who has the power to dissolve parliament but urged the government to complete a four-year mandate it won at the polls in June 2011.

On Friday the court found that proposed cuts in holiday bonuses for civil servants and pensioners were unconstitutional, as were reductions in sick pay and unemployment benefit, all of which would have trimmed €1.3bn from budget spending for this year, according to media estimates. The court, however, upheld other planned measures such as tax hikes.

Passos Coelho's conservative Social Democrats took power after his Socialist predecessor asked a "troika" of lenders for a bailout in March 2011, before resigning. Since then, the government has imposed stringent and unpopular spending cuts totalling €13bn – about 8% of Portugal's economic output – which have led to widespread protests in common with other eurozone countries suffering from a persistent economic slump.

The government failed to meet its budget deficit targets last year set by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank, and in order to fulfil the terms of its €78bn bailout Lisbon has pledged to trim a budget shortfall of 6.4% of gross domestic product in 2012 to 5.5% this year.

Passos Coelho survived his fourth vote of no confidence last Wednesday but faced renewed calls to resign over the weekend. Opposition Socialist leader António José Seguro accused the government of breaking campaign promises and said dole queues of almost a million people showed austerity had merely locked the country into a recessionary spiral, which might yet lead to a second bailout. Portugal's economy shrank by 3.2% last year.

"The country needs a different exit strategy from the crisis, one that prioritises economic growth," Seguro told state television. "The country is living in a social tragedy. This needs to change, and that change entails substituting the government."

In crisis-hit neighbouring Spain, meanwhile, the CSI-F union for civil servants said the government in Madrid should "take note" of the Portuguese court's decision and reimburse workers with a Christmas bonus axed last December in cuts which likewise aim to trim a yawning budget gap.


Martin Roberts in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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