Portugal: how an unexciting election produced a surprising political earthquake

Posted on 21. January 2016

by Pedro Ponte e Sousa & Henrique Tereno

pedro-ponte-e-sousahenrique-terenoOn October 4th, 2015, the Portuguese people went to the polls to vote at the Portuguese parliamentary elections. At the end of the day, according to the data given by the Ministry of Homeland Affairs, 56% of the Portuguese people voted and the right-wing parties, in a coalition entitled “Portugal à Frente” [Portugal Ahead] formed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Social Democratic Centre – People’s Party (CDS-PP) led by Pedro Passos Coelho, the Portuguese Prime Minister since 2011, won the elections with 37% of the votes. However, they did not have the qualified majority required to govern. A political coalition with the strongest party, according to the data, was necessary. As a result, the right-wing tried to negotiate with the Socialist Party (PS) led by António Costa (32%). However, the Socialist Party joined forces with the left-wing: Left Bloc (BE) (10%), and the coalition formed by the Communist Party (PCP) and with Ecologist Party “The Greens” (8%).

This new alliance formed by PS and the left-wing parties was something new for the Portuguese people. Usually, the party with more votes, even if it doesn’t hold a majority in the Parliament or is unable to form it with other political parties, forms a minority government and is commonly able to govern with the tacit approval of the main opposition party. Nevertheless, the coalition between PS and the left-wing allowed António Costa to become Prime Minister of Portugal and the right-wing government was unable to continue in cabinet. In fact, this was seen by the right-wing as an antidemocratic act due to the fact that its coalition had, effectively, been the most voted in the election. However, it is important to bear in mind that Portugal has a parliamentary system and it is possible for a party to form a coalition with others in order to form a parliamentary majority. In addition to this, for the first time in the country’s democratic history the “arco da governação” – the unofficial practical strategy which both excluded the extreme left parties of government and parliamentary majority solutions, and so pinpointed the other three parties (PS, PSD and CDS-PP) as the only ones having that responsibility – was overcome, with the Socialist Party in cabinet and the other leftist parties supporting its political stance in parliament.

On one hand, these results may show that the Portuguese are, in some way, exhausted with austerity measures: social inequality is soaring. Deterioration of living standards associated with high unemployment rates, high levels of emigration and cuts on the healthcare and education budgets are just a few examples of the serious effects of austerity measures. Nevertheless, it is important to state that the Portuguese economy is finally starting to grow, throughout the past year, and all macroeconomic figures are showing minor signs of recovery, and that the electoral results weren’t any seismic change from previous elections. More than big fluctuations on who voted for which parties, it was mainly through a different strategy of leftist parties post-elections that this significant government and parliamentary change was produced.

On the other hand, some international impact – particularly in Spain – may be expected from this new political scene in Portugal. In Spain, the head of the Spanish Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez has stated that he is willing to create a “coalition of progressive forces”, similar to what happened in Portugal, to lead the country if the winning People’s Party (PP) is unable to form a government. Even though there are a number of differences in the two countries electoral results and main political parties, and the political scene is much more complex and unstable than in Portugal, the ability of the Portuguese Socialist Party to rally the left-wing parties against four more years of right-wing rule may inspire those “progressive forces” to come together.

In addition to this, the fact that party politics have become somewhat more unpredictable and new policies are dependent on a number of talks between the different parties is leading some people in both countries to be anxious, worried and uncomfortable. Both people which may see themselves as part of the right-wing or even the centre of the political spectrum claim that such a government is going to clash against EU policy guidelines and fully reject a number of austerity measures, while sharply increasing funds available for healthcare and education. Indeed, for most of the campaign, both former right-wing ministers and even the PM Passos Coelho highlighted the similarity between the Left Bloc and Syriza or Podemos, as well as the contradictions between the Communist Party intentions regarding EU, the Euro and foreign policy with the strategies supported by the Socialist Party. The right-wing argues that dismissing austerity measures will increase public debt to unsustainable levels, without any positive effect on the economy. However, the Socialist Party has emphasised multiple times that it is governing based on its own electoral program and not on the one from the Left Bloc or the Communist, and, even though negotiations are needed on a regular basis, it is expected that the Socialists may not accept a number of intentions from the left.

It is indeed a time of change. The Portuguese Socialist and Communist parties made an alliance for the first time since 1975 and they are walking side by side against austerity and right-wing policies. It is important to bear in mind that Syriza’s movement in Greece “was the first radical-left government in Europe since the Second World War” (Eurozone Crosses Rubicon as Portugal’s anti-euro Left banned from power, The Telegraph) and yet it was crushed by the EU for confronting the Eurozone ideology. It is not expected that the Portuguese Socialist Party can become a new Syriza, but it is still a new progressive government which may join others in Europe for a cutback in austerity measures throughout the continent. To conclude, there are two relevant issues to highlight: (1) there are Presidential elections at the end of January 2016 and, even though there are many candidates from the left of the political spectrum, that doesn’t seem to have caused any major fractures on the relationship between those parties, and it is unlikely to do so in the future; (2) the main challenge this left-wing agreement may face is the annual national budget approval, especially if new austerity measures are needed to comply with European rules. The agreement in place seems to have solved only the 2016 budget, while the remaining ones will require further and extensive talks between the parties in order to be accepted by the left. But, despite the possibility that the parliamentary majority may not last for the full 4 years, it will still be a better solution for most Portuguese, as the sort of “state of emergency” caused by austerity measures comes to an end.