By Susana Coroado (University of Lisbon)
Against all the expectations created during the electoral campaign, the 2022 Portuguese snap election ended in an absolute majority to the ruling Socialist Party (PS), who increased five percentage points and eleven more members of parliament in comparison with the 2019 elections. Its partners in a leftist coalition, the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) seem to have been the victim of the strategic vote, after having voted against the State Budget, which has prompted the snap election. Despite not having good memories of absolute majorities, Portuguese voters seemed to be more concerned with political instability and ungovernability in a post-pandemic context.
The traditional right-wing parties, the Social Democrats (PSD) and the Christian Democrats (CDS) were also severely shaken and lost ground, not only to the PS but also to the right-wing newcomers, Chega (Enough, in the English translation) and the Liberals (IL).
The snap election also reconfigured parliament, reducing the degree of fragmentation that had reached a maximum in 2019, with ten parties. With PEV (the Greens) and CDS out, the number of parties in parliament is now eight.
The winners, the losers and the zombies
In what the polls suggested would be the most competitive since the 1980s, this election had winners and losers not only in the run for the first but also for the third and the sixth places. Overall, the 2019 election seem to have set up three leagues in the parliament. PS and PSD play for the first league and are always expected to form a government. The second league was formed by the medium-size parties – BE, PCP and CDS. The third league was composed of the smaller parties – PAN, Chega, IL and Livre. In 2022, the leagues were kept, but the teams changed.
After six years in power, an unprecedented pandemic and several controversies with some senior members of the cabinet, PS and, especially its leader and Prime Minister, António Costa are the absolute winners (pun intended) of this snap election. After having called for an absolute majority and then, alarmed by the polls that indicated that his call might have scared voters away, giving in to the possibility of negotiations, Costa got what he wished for. He secured the second absolute majority of the Socialists in history and will now secure the approval of the State Budget that was refused in October.
The second winner of the evening was Chega, the populist right-wing party, who, in less than three years since its creation, reached third place and twelve MPs. Becoming the third largest political force in Portugal was the objective set by its leader, André Ventura. In its victory speech, Ventura warned Costa: “We will come after you”. The also fairly recent IL is also one of the winners, as it saw its parliamentary representation rise from one to eight MPs. It became the fourth largest political force, with more MPs than BE and PCP. Both Chega and IL witnessed impressive growth for parties that had just entered parliament two years ago. Finally, Livre and its leader, the former MEP Rui Tavares, secured one seat in parliament. Livre had also gained a seat in 2019, but after internal conflicts, the party withdrew the support of its MP and lost parliamentary representation. Whether Livre would be able to elect again was one of the enigmas of the evening.
Now the losers. After having witnessed a surprising rise in the polls in the last weeks of the electoral campaign that made all results unpredictable, PSD and its leader, Rui Rio, are the biggest losers, with less than 30% of the votes. Rio will most probably step out, but it’s not clear who is eager to take his place in the context of an absolute majority of the Socialists and deal with a parliamentary group full of Rio’s loyalists. BE, who was in the run for third place, ended up in fifth, with only six elected MPs, the same as PCP. In comparison with 2019, the BE lost 13 MPs and PCP four. Both leftist parties were PS’s partners in the 2015-forged geringonça and may have been the victims of the strategic vote on the Socialists. While the fall of BE is more resounding, that of PCP may be more symbolic, given that it lost historic electoral bastions and reinforced a previous trend of erosion. The fourth loser is PAN (People-Animals-Nature), which got to elect its leader but lost three MPs and is back to its 2015-2019 condition, with just one elected official. PAN also loses the “parliamentary group”, a status that grants more rights in parliament to parties with more than one MP.
Finally, the zombies, i.e., the political parties that have historically been present in the Portuguese parliament and that have lost all their seats: PEV, the green party, and CDS. Their future is uncertain. While PEV is the junior partner that always runs in coalition with PCP and has less visibility, CDS is a historical party in the Portuguese democracy. After its charismatic leader, Paulo Portas, retired in 2015, CDS was never able to find its path and, recently lost many of its cadres due to internal conflicts with the current leadership. Most probably it’s voters split between Chega and IL. It is not clear if CDS will endure this historical defeat.
How did we get here?
The 2015 surprising leftist coalition in parliament – the first in the history of Portuguese democracy – did not last two legislatures. In October 2021, the failure of the negotiations over the State Budget prompted President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to dissolve parliament and call for early elections. Who is to blame for this unexpected outcome is difficult to assess. Some said it was the Socialist government, that undermined negotiations to force elections and achieve an absolute majority (at the moment in time, its main contester PSD was going through internal turmoil). Others blame the left partners – BE and PCP – for having been too demanding and not voting in favour of the Budget, risking new elections. PSD was accused of the same but to a lesser extent. Finally, some accused the President himself, who by threatening to call elections to pressure parties to approve the budget, ended up forging a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Where do we go from here?
In the immediate aftermath of the elections, it is difficult to delve more into what comes next, besides the obvious. At this point, the electoral outcomes had an impact on the leadership of the right-wing losers. In BE and PCP, they might have a negative impact, but at this point, it’s difficult to predict the extent of it. Who will be part of the Socialist government or whether Costa will keep its promise of reducing the size of the cabinet (after having had the largest cabinet ever, with Ministers that no one really knew), are also open questions.
Still, there are three elements worth paying attention to the role of the President, the relevance of parliament and the weight of populism in Portugal. Until now, due to the political fragmentation, the dynamics between the government, the parliament and the President of the Republic were central to the governance of the country, now the political forces will need to find a new equilibrium and a new role.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has been quite interventive, often backing the government’s position with his authority as head of state with “things got tougher” or playing counter-power, given its political weight. To some extent, Rebelo de Sousa became the stable element of the system in a context in which the minority government was weak. Now, with an absolute majority and without the need for a constant political bargain, the position of the President, who likes the spotlight, becomes unclear. Will Rebelo de Sousa become more – or less – interventive?
In the context of an absolute majority, the role of the parliament, which had gained much more relevance since 2015, is also uncertain. Although Costa, in his victory speech, guaranteed that an absolute majority is not absolute power and that he will negotiate in parliament, this stance will only be maintained as long as the negotiations serve the government and the socialist majority. The parliament will have to step up its game in checking and making the government accountable. However, in a country where it is acceptable that the government and the public administration leave parliamentary questions unanswered and where the two major parties ended the fortnightly Prime Minister’s Questions, it will be challenging for parliament to maintain a central role.
Finally, the rise of the radical and populist right. After having been regarded as the exceptional case in Europe for the absence of such political movements, Portugal has now witnessed a dramatic rise of Chega and its ideas. Being the third force in parliament, Chega will have a privileged stage to showcase its populism and xenophobic ideas. Yet, a party that is so centred in its leader and that has already gone through internal turmoil may also be more exposed in its fragilities and lack of homogeneity with an eight-member parliamentary group.
Photo source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/31/portugal-general-election-pm-antonio-costa-wins-surprise-outright-majority