By Pedro Lourenço (University of Aveiro)
Last week, The Guardian portrayed Portugal as “Europe’s beacon of social democracy”. According to the newspaper, “while populist parties have erupted at both ends of the political spectrum elsewhere across the continent, Portugal has proved an enduring, if improbable, beacon of social democracy”. The results of yesterday’s election seem to partially confirm this idea.
The electoral results came with no surprise and largely confirmed what the polls predicted. The Socialist Party (PS) – led by current prime-minister, António Costa – won with 36.7% of the votes, despite falling short of a much-desired absolute majority. PS saw its parliamentary group grow from 85 to 106 MPs in a 230-seat parliament. The short distance to the 116 seats required for the majority gives Costa enhanced power to choose with whom and under what conditions to govern.
His main adversary – the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) – fell short with just 27.9% of the votes. The major Portuguese right-wing party, led by former Porto mayor, Rui Rio, had its worst result since 1983, a defeat only attenuated by the low expectations built in the last months. Rio’s disappointing performance as party leader was fiercely contested by internal adversaries and saw the party collapse to a negative record of only 21.9% in last May’s European Parliament election. However, results were better than what polls predicted in early September (around 23%).
On the other side of the political spectrum, PS competed with the two radical left parties that provided parliamentary support to Costa’s government (2015-2019). The ‘new left’ Left Bloc (BE) largely retained its support with 9.7% (10.2% in 2015) and now consolidates as the third Portuguese party. On the contrary, the Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU) – the electoral coalition led by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), one of the last conservative communist parties in Europe – had its worst result since the 1974 democratic revolution and fell to only 6.5% (8.3% in 2015). The radical left survived its first experience of government participation and remains the most likely ally of a new PS government.
The surprises of the night would however come from the bottom of the electoral table. After entering parliament in 2015, animal welfare and environmentalist PAN (People–Animals–Nature) saw their single MP give way to a parliamentary group of 4 MPs (3.3%). And the collapse of the conservative Social Democratic Center-People’s Party (CDS-PP) – junior coalition partner of Passos Coelho’s government (2011-2015) – gave space to the unprecedented election of three new parties into parliament: the Liberal Initiative (IL) (1.3%), the far-right populist CHEGA (1.3%) and the eco-socialist LIVRE (1.1%). The newcomers took advantage of the low effective electoral threshold of the largest electoral district of Lisbon to gain a parliamentary seat for the first time. The election of the lawyer and football pundit André Ventura (CHEGA) marks, for the first time, the entry of a radical right-wing party into Portuguese parliament.
Political context and campaign
The political context for the 2019 Portuguese legislative elections was particularly favorable to Costa’s PS. After four years of harsh austerity measures imposed during the PSD-CDS coalition government (2011-2015), the minority government led by Costa – the ‘Geringonça’ (‘contraption’), as was popularly known the governmental agreement between PS, BE, PCP and PEV – reversed some of these measures and implemented a set of popular social proposals that included raising the minimum wage (from 480 to 600€) and elderly pensions, a reduction in public transport passes, or the reduction of university tuition fees. Largely helped by favorable external macroeconomic conditions, growth levels were restored and unemployment fell, while keeping budgetary discipline and deficit figures at historic lows. The ‘Geringonça’ government was unexpectedly stable and largely delivered on its promises.
Last May’s European elections served as the first test of the four years of social democratic governance. A 12-point distance victory of PS over PSD, which collapsed to a new low record of 21% of the votes, seemed to predict a comfortable victory for the Socialist Party in the October legislative election. This distance even increased up to 18% in early September, according to polls. Therefore, in late August, the electoral campaign began with PS threatening to win with the largest margin ever.
With a comfortable distance to his main rivals, political conflict often seemed to be centered between PS and BE, with fierce public accusations from part to part. While Costa sought to reap the benefits of his ‘responsible’ governance and promise to do better – “Do More and Better” was his motto – the Left Bloc warned of the risks of an absolute majority. Meanwhile, right-wing parties (PSD, CDS-PP) adopted a discourse critical of the country’s high tax burden, lack of investment and degradation of public services, and attributed the economic successes of governance to the external economic context. Public opinion studies, however, showed that most people actually preferred budget surpluses to be channeled to investment in public services (especially health) rather than the tax cuts proposed by the right.
But soon, and as the campaign progressed, PS’s lead gradually diminished. A significant improvement in Rio’s performance against Costa in TV debates seemed to activate and mobilize part of the center-right electorate and party members who were first reluctant about his leadership. In addition, a political scandal of a military weapons theft led to the judicial prosecution of Costa’s former Defense minister and rocked the campaign just two weeks into the election, threatening what first seemed to be an uncontroversial campaign. And on October 6, the distance between PS and PSD turned out to be only 9%, half of what earlier polls predicted.
A relevant aspect of the campaign was also the centrality of climate change in political debate. The answer to the so-called ‘climate crisis’ was central to most party electoral manifestos – both from the left and the right – and was prominently discussed in television debates and newspapers. Despite lack of empirical data, political pundits associated the increasing salience of these issues to the significant growth of the environmentalist PAN, particularly among younger voters.
The results of this election raise (at least) three important questions:
First, about the new government solution. With a reinforced majority in parliament, PS now appears to have greater bargaining power over BE and PCP, than it had back in 2015. On election night, Costa said he wanted to repeat and extend a new Geringonça to new parties (PAN and LIVRE), but with a stronger PS. Catarina Martins (BE) declared Left Bloc’s availability for a new agreement, either under a more lasting agreement or an year-by-year negotiation. However, Jerónimo de Sousa, the general secretary of the communists, rejected the possibility of a new formal agreement and suggested that the PCP would only negotiate bills on a case by case basis. This constrains largely BE’s strategical decisions. But the truth is that the PS now only needs the abstention from one of these parties to pass bills in parliament, which can lead to new political geometries to be formed in parliament.
Beyond this scenario, many have also wondered if Costa will look to their main rivals of PSD to approve some proposals or even state budgets. In the last four years, some controversial laws have been approved not by the radical left but by right-wing parties (e.g. the banking system resolutions) and the PSD leader has already made himself available to enable a PS government on the condition that an agreement is reached on ‘structural reforms’. Whether this statement was sincere or merely strategical, only time will tell, but no one doubts anymore of Costa’s skills as a qualified negotiator.
The second issue is the potential outbreak of a new economic and financial crisis. Several parties recognized this possibility during the campaign. Its eventual impact on the Portuguese economy may undermine not only the government solution that now seems more likely, but also shake the Portuguese political system as it currently exists. Let us just recall that despite the positive performance of the Portuguese economy, the public debt-to-GDP ratio remains at around 120%.
And this bring us to our third question: the impact of newcomer parties on the dynamics of the Portuguese party system. Much has been written about a perceived crisis of the Portuguese ‘right’ and its “reconstruction”. The results of PSD and CDS-PP, combined with the emergence of new political actors on the right, suggests this possibility. Moreover, where previously seemed to be no room for an identitarian, xenophobic and anti-immigrant discourse – associated with the European far right – now opened a new window of opportunity for it to enter the political debate. Both by the hand of CHEGA’s Ventura (a former local PSD candidate) and some internal factions of the CDS-PP, nativist discourse now has new media stage to spread its message. And in the context of historically low voter turnouts, and a possible new economic crisis, everyone is wondering if Portugal will remain immune for much longer to the “populist zeitgeist” that is plaguing Europe.
Similarly, it will be interesting to follow the role of the Liberal Initiative, which promised to make a “strong ideological opposition to socialism” and advocates a quasi-libertarian economic agenda (flat tax rates, privatization of public services, etc.); and of LIVRE, whose MP Joacine Katar Moreira is a black woman known for her activism in the antifascist and anti-racist social movements. She pledges to take those struggles to the parliament in the face of the a new far-right menace. But whether Portugal will resist and continue to be “the beacon of social democracy in Europe”, remains to be seen.
Photo source: https://g1.globo.com/mundo/noticia/2019/10/06/pesquisa-de-boca-de-urna-aponta-vitoria-do-partido-socialista-nas-eleicoes-em-portugal.ghtml