By Hugo Ferrinho Lopes (University of Lisbon)

The radical right secured nearly 50 MPs as Portugal approaches the 50th anniversary of the end of a right-wing dictatorship. Chega (Enough) experienced a surge in the snap elections of March 2024, achieving a sizeable outcome and emerging as a major player in a reconfigured party system.
The Socialist Party’s (PS) third term abruptly ended after just 19 months in office. António Costa was expected to remain in office for three more years, becoming the longest-serving prime minister in Portugal. Instead, he resigned from office on November 7, 2023, the day he became the subject of a public prosecution investigation. However, government instability began much earlier. Since May 2022, two months after the government term began, a series of scandals resulted in a rate of nearly one resignation per month among members of the executive.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa rejected the Socialists’ proposal to appoint a new head of government to rule with the party’s majority and called elections for March 10, 2024. The majority of citizens supported this decision, enabling the parliament to approve the state budget and providing the Socialist party with time to elect a new leader.

The context
The election took place in a challenging context for the incumbent party. Costa assumed office during an economic expansion following the financial crisis. By the end of his tenure, the annual growth rate stood at 2.3%, exceeding the Eurozone average. The public debt-to-GDP ratio had decreased to levels comparable only to those before the Great Recession (98.7%), and exports had reached an unprecedented share of GDP (50%), with one-third of these related to services, particularly tourism. However, this economic growth came at the expense of public investment. Eurobarometer and polling data indicate that rising costs of living and crises in healthcare, education, and housing sectors were the main concerns for citizens. This seems to be connected with voters’ perceptions of government performance, that sharply declined since the fall of 2022, and evaluations of the economy, which remained negative for over three years.
With the exception of education, the primary campaign issues aligned closely with voter preferences. Discussions mainly revolved around the economy, covering topics such as salaries, taxes, pensions, and employment, as well as healthcare and housing. Despite being a top priority for voters, education received less prime-time attention compared to justice or international affairs, and was on par with law enforcement agencies, which were not among the citizens’ most pressing concerns. Education likely lacked salience because parties generally held similar positions on the matter (at least in electoral manifestos). Additionally, justice, including corruption and crime, and government strategy were prominently featured in political debate. While voters desired discussions on party coalition strategies due to forecasts indicating that no party would secure a parliamentary majority alone, the prominence of justice issues exceeded public preferences, likely due to the corruption scandals and the varying interpretations of the actions of public prosecution services in media debates.
Anecdotally, the main opposition party was not able to take much advantage of Socialist scandals. Apart from the radical right, fear of causing a backlash led most parties to choose not to politicize corruption in the campaign. This proved to be a cautious decision for the main center-party, as the Social Democrats (PSD) also faced corruption scandals until the election. The president of Madeira’s regional government (elected by PSD and the Christian Democrats) resigned from office during the pre-campaign period due to a public prosecution investigation for corruption involving himself and several party elites in the region. Additionally, the PSD leader faced an inquiry into fiscal benefits regarding the construction of his house, and even the president (also from PSD) faced allegations of favoring two children in medical treatment.

The results
Indeed, the radical right was the main beneficiary of the corruption scandals. On January 30, about 6.14 million Portuguese citizens went to the polls. Despite a large proportion of the electorate being undecided about the party they would vote for until the week prior to election day, more than 750,000 additional voters cast a ballot than in 2022. Turnout grew from 58% to 66.2% – levels only comparable to those in the 1990s. It jumps to
closer to three quarters of the population (75%) if estimated on the basis of the actual voting age population. Three main issues arise from the election results.
First, despite the main center-right coalition garnering more votes and seats, there is no clear winner. The Social Democrats (PSD) formed a pre-electoral coalition called the Democratic Alliance (AD) with the Christian Democrats (CDS-PP) and the Monarchists (PPM). They obtained slightly more votes (1,810,871) than the Socialists (1,759,937) and are widely considered to have achieved a narrow victory. However, there is a tie in seats between the two main political parties if the two MPs from CDS-PP are excluded: PS and PSD both elected 77 MPs. Only after allocating the last four seats to the foreign constituencies (Europe and outside Europe, respectively) is it possible to determine which of the two main parties will secure more mandates alone in parliament.
Second, the similarity between the names of two coalitions running for elections — AD (Democratic Alliance) and ADN (National Democratic Alternative) — appears to have led to confusion among voters. Some voters mistakenly cast their ballots for ADN instead of AD, resulting in a loss of 3 MPs for AD. This confusion primarily affected older voters in constituencies where ADN appeared before AD on the ballot (in Portugal, the order of parties on the ballot is randomized at the district level, leading to varying orderings across territories).
Third, the radical right achieved a remarkable result. Chega collected more than one million votes and secured almost 50 MPs at a time when the country is about to celebrate 50 years since the end of a right-wing dictatorship. Their vote share surged from 7.15% to 18.06%, and they elected MPs in every electoral district except one (Bragança). Additionally, Chega even surpassed both PS and AD in Algarve. An analysis based on the available data as of today indicates that the decrease in abstention appears to be strongly correlated with the growth of the radical right. Moreover, a surprisingly sizable number of young voters cast their ballots for Chega on election day. Most of their social base now comprises young men with lower levels of education.
In the end, only one of the remaining parties celebrated a victory. The Liberals and the Left Bloc maintained their number of seats (8 and 5, respectively). The Communists saw a reduction from 6 to 4 seats. The environmentalist-animalist party PAN fell short of their goal to form a parliamentary group, securing just one seat as in the previous term. The left-libertarian Livre was the only party to experience growth, increasing from 1 to 4 MPs, thus forming a parliamentary group and achieving a comparable weight to the other two radical left parties (Left Bloc and the Communists).

The aftermath
The election results have several implications for the party system. Parliamentary fragmentation and electoral volatility increased, while disproportionality decreased. This marks the second-worst result for the two main parties combined in history. They lost two-thirds of the parliament, which previously allowed them to pass constitutional changes, extract resources from the state, and approve nominations for public office. Furthermore, the Democratic Alliance (AD) rejected any coalition with the radical right. However, they failed to secure a parliamentary majority without Chega. This represents the worst result for the center-right in democratic history, while simultaneously being the largest result for the right when including Chega. This implies that even if the AD leader is appointed as prime minister, as expected, and they form a coalition with the Liberals (IL), they would still have fewer MPs than the leftist parties combined. Therefore, they would need the support of the radical right or the Socialists to pass bills and legislation.
There is widespread concern about government stability, which was one of the main issues of the campaign. Although it seems likely that AD would form the government, it is unclear to what extent such a government will survive. Whether the ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the radical right will remain is also a question to be answered.

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