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Explaining Portugal’s latest legislative elections

It was a surprise election result in Portugal last month. Despite the polls going against incumbent Prime Minister Antonio Costa and his ruling centre-left Socialist Party (PS), the voters returned him to power with an outright majority. 

Voters flocked to the polls and rewarded the incumbent for his strong financial and Covid-19 record, leaving Portugal with a stable government to move forward with its pandemic response. This was a night that shook up the parliament in two very interesting ways, delivering victories for the left and the far-right. So why did Portugal go to the polls, and what do these results mean for the future?

In November 2021, Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa announced plans to dissolve parliament, calling a snap election for 30 January. The national assembly rejected the socialist government’s draft budget for 2022 – the first time this has happened in decades, and coming after a period of relative political stability under Costa. 

Prime Minister Costa had ruled for six years, leading a minority government with allies in the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) helping to pass key legislation. This arrangement finally broke down after they joined the right in rejecting the budget. The president warned that he would dissolve parliament if this happened – and soon, the parties were on election footing.

The PS took a majority, winning 117 seats…with 41.7% of the vote

The opinion polls initially favoured the incumbent socialists, but their lead tightened as the campaign went on. The PS began with a lead of around 12 percentage points over their main rival, the centre-right Social Democrat Party (PSD), but that lead shrank as January went on. All the polls were suggested a tight run between the two parties, and the probability of another Costa-led minority government. PSD leader Rui Rio tried to mount a strong campaign, but faced a leadership election in his own party during it – he was only confirmed as leader on 18 January, 12 days before the polls closed.

But, unexpectedly, that wasn’t what happened at all. The PS took a majority, winning 117 seats (a majority is 116) with 41.7% of the vote. This seat total was nine higher than in their minority government. The PSD was nowhere near, with 29.3% of the vote, meaning it lost three seats to finish with 76. 

Obviously, a vote of support for the PS came at the expense of its former governing partners. Voter anger over the far-left’s role in triggering this political crisis was clear, and they were punished – the BE and PCP vote share both halved to 4.5% and 4.4% respectively. A trend was also bucked in regards to voter turnout – it has been steadily declining over the past ten years, but this election saw 57.9% of registered voters cast a ballot, the highest since the 2011 legislative election.

An absolute majority doesn’t mean absolute power. It doesn’t mean to govern alone

– Portuguese Prime Minsiter Antonio Costa

What does this win mean? Most immediately, the majority gives Costa a stable government to oversee the application of EU pandemic recovery funds worth €16.6 billion. Costa has won plaudits for turning around Portugal’s post-crisis economy, reversing unpopular austerity measures and overseeing a successful vaccination programme – and it’s likely that voters have rewarded him for it. The PS has promised to increase the minimum wage, cut income tax and corporate tax from 21% to 17% by 2026, and start a “national conversation” around a four-day working week.

In his victory speech, he also stressed his desire to work with like-minded parties – something he was preparing to do prior to his unexpected win. He said: “An absolute majority doesn’t mean absolute power. It doesn’t mean to govern alone. It’s an increased responsibility and it means to govern with and for all Portuguese.”

That said, there is one party Costa has openly stated he will not share a dialogue with. The night was framed as a big win for the socialists, but the other point of interest was the rise of the far-right. In 2019, the Chega party returned its first MP to parliament – this time around, it is the third-largest party in parliament, taking 7.2% of the vote and winning 12 seats. It will now be the main opposition party whenever the PS and PSD vote for a bill together.

This will be the first time the far-right is a significant force in the Portuguese parliament since 1974 when a revolution ended the Fascist-style dictatorship founded by Antonio Oliveira Salazar in the 1930s. Chega leader André Ventura said: “This is bittersweet. I’m happy with Chega’s growth, but Antonio Costa will stay on as prime minister.” Although the party grew its number of seats, its vote-share fell from the almost-12% Ventura picked up in last year’s presidential elections.

With only 12 seats, Chega is not going to have too much power in the parliament, but the ramifications on the right-of-centre are significant. Rio suggested that he was likely to step down as party leader: “I don’t see how I can be of any use, if the PS has an absolute majority for the next four years.” He blamed the defeat on a fracturing of the right linked to Chega and a new pro-business party, Liberal Initiative (LI), which won almost 5% of the vote. 

These parties also squeezed out the PSD’s traditional right-wing ally, the CDS-People’s Party, which lost all five of its seats. Although the right doesn’t have the numbers to stall Costa’s agenda, if a new leader designs to align the PSD more with Chega and LI, it could see the emergence of a more populist right flank in the parliament.

Portugal has once again opted for a social-democratic project that combines growth and social justice

– Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez

The win for Costa has been celebrated by the centre-left elsewhere in Europe. The Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted: “Portugal has once again opted for a social-democratic project that combines growth and social justice. Together we will continue to promote a socialist response to the challenges we share, in our countries and in Europe.” European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans said that the win was “an important victory for Portugal and Europe.” Joana Ramiro suggests its victory may provide a lesson for other European left parties – co-operating with the far-left when it is useful, yet carving out a distinct identity separate from them.

Portugal is a unique case, however. Elisabetta De Giorgi, associate professor of political science at the University of Trieste, Italy, explains: “In many Southern European countries the mainstream parties lost popularity in the last years, but in Portugal, the competition has kept being between the two mainstream parties in all these years, since the beginning of the financial crisis. 

“I know that it seems weird because they’re having early elections but politically they’ve been the most stable country in southern Europe since the economic crisis. They’re the only country where the two biggest mainstream parties continued to be the two competitors in the election. They are the only country in the region where no new challengers either from the right or from the left actually challenged the government.”

Costa now has a term length of four years and a majority government to play with

Similarly, political analyst and journalist Miguel Szymanski suggests that the political environment fell very favourably for the PS: “The Socialist Party’s strategy that triggered the snap election seems to have worked out fine: the two parties on the left were punished, the main opposition party did not benefit from it as Rui Rio and the main opposition PSD expected. It was all about the right timing to escape the fragile position Costa’s minority government was in.” 

He noted that the PS benefitted from “a very successful vaccination campaign; the main opposition leader was being contested by a strong rival; the president was fully aligned with the government; the government spent millions supporting media businesses over the last two years.”

Jon Henley suggests that Costa’s unexpected consolidation of power marks a tentative comeback by the centre-left in Europe, but that may be stretching a little too far. Costa and the PS succeeded in this election due to a mixture of strong governance and the weakness of his political opponents. Assuming there are no new elections, Costa now has a term length of four years and a majority government to play with – the question will be whether he can continue to manage the economy and country effectively on his own, and how his opponents will reform and react.

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