After a political crisis in parliament, Portugal’s early elections resulted in an unexpected majority for the Socialist Party.
In a word
- The Socialist Party can now govern without relying on allies
- Portuguese voters change allegiance
- The far left has completely collapsed
Snap general elections were held in Portugal on January 30 following a budget crisis in Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s socialist government. While left and right favored rejecting the budget, President Marcelo Rebello de Sousa dissolved parliament and called for an election. On the eve of the vote, most polls showed the Socialists (PS) and Social Democrats (PSD) neck and neck, at around 34 or 35% each. The results, however, were surprisingly different.
The PS obtained 41.5% of the vote, electing 119 deputies out of 230 seats. Rui Rio’s PSD won 27.8% of the vote and 73 seats. the results What cast doubt on the reliability of polling institutes in Portugal, especially since another recent electoral forecast for a municipal election in Lisbon was also completely false.
Ideologically, there were no major differences between the programs of the two parties. Mr. Rio was perceived, even within his party, as a centre-left man. Unlike the majority of PSD MPs, he favors legal abortion and euthanasia, which may have cost him Conservative support in the election.
Other winners and losers
The two far left parties, the Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE), also suffered a serious defeat. A significant part of their electorate would have voted PS. By predicting a tie between the PS and the PSD, the polls probably pushed left-wing voters to vote for the PS in order to avoid what they perceived as a “right-wing victory”. The same thing probably happened on the right side of the political spectrum, but on a much smaller scale.
For the far left, the election was a serious defeat.
Another election winner was Chega, a nationalist party sometimes described by its critics as far-right populist. Its leader, André Ventura, is a former PSD activist who founded Chega in April 2019, forging political relations at European level with the Fratelli d’Italia in Italy, the National Rally in France and Vox in Spain. Just six months later, Mr. Ventura was elected Chega’s sole deputy in the Portuguese parliament.
His program for the January 2022 elections, “God, Fatherland, Family and Work”, has been attacked by left and liberal elites as a Portuguese version of the populist new right. But Chega performed well, winning 7.15% of the vote and 12 deputies.
The Liberal Initiative (IL), a new pro-market and anti-socialist party, also performed well in the elections, with 5% of the vote and eight seats. They are socially liberal: pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, and in favor of same-sex marriage and adoption. Their voters are mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class professionals from major urban centers like Lisbon and Porto, unlike the Chega constituency, which is more evenly spread across the country.
The Democratic and Social Center (CDS) suffered a severe blow: with 1.61% of the vote, it could not elect a single deputy, not even the young leader of the party, Francisco Rodrigues dos Santos. Internal dissensions may be the cause of the defeat of the long-established party.
A country on the left
Portugal is one of the most left-wing countries in the EU. After the military coup of April 1974, the decolonization and nationalization of the country’s main businesses took place in a climate of extreme leftist radicalism. Since then, Portugal’s political spectrum has been dominated – with the exception of short periods of centre-right government – by the left.
Portugal has had the same borders in Europe since the 13th century and has no problems of national identity or religious or ethnic dissent. Because it has not experienced culturally significant foreign immigration like France or regional separatism like Spain, Portugal has not been affected by the problems that led to a wave of new right-wing nationalism in European countries.
In today’s Europe, two distinct right-wing ideologies have emerged. One is nationally conservative, like Polish Law and Justice or Hungarian Fidesz. The other is more identity and national populist like the French National Rally, or the Italian Fratelli d’Italia.
Business circles now hope that, since he no longer needs the endorsement of the left, Antonio Costa will focus on a realistic economic policy to reverse the current economic decline.
The popularity of these parties is a reaction to many factors, including EU pressure for more centralized powers, uncontrolled immigration, large-scale corruption and the radically correct agenda of the left. But in Portugal, the left has long dominated the cultural and political scene. Despite a long list of scandals involving prominent members of the PS and PSD, the two parties have ruled Portugal since 1976.
Chega, a new right-wing force
As elsewhere in Europe, Portugal’s traditional right-wing parties have failed to fight uncontrolled immigration, deindustrialization and the left’s monopoly on cultural issues. The Chega party has gained popularity because it has tackled these issues.
Early on, Mr Ventura focused his rhetoric on criticizing what he described as “privileged minorities”, such as the Roma (referred to here as cigans) and also in matters of public order such as chemical castration for sex offenders. He was elected to parliament with 70,000 votes in October 2019. In January 2021, he received almost half a million votes (12%) in the presidential elections. Last month’s results only confirm the ascendancy of the party and its leader.
Chega’s rise has been bitterly criticized by leftist and liberal media. The new party was accused of being fascist and racist, and its leader’s ideology was compared to that of the authoritarian Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.
The party’s most recent political program emphasizes national identity, family values, market economy and law and order.
As is traditional in Portuguese politics, the “Centrao” (Great Center) – the political space that stretches from the socialists on the left to the PSD on the right – remains dominant, obtaining 70% of the vote. The radical left and the communists have suffered a serious setback, and the right is split between Chega and IL.
Mr Costa is a moderate socialist who accepted a leftist program from his PCP and BE PCP allies in 2015 in order to stay in power. With an absolute majority, he no longer needs it. His cabinet included different viewpoints, ranging from the moderate and pro-market Economy Minister Siza Vieira to the more left-leaning Infrastructure Minister Pedro Nuno Santos.
Prime Minister Costa has always been careful to appear as a peacemaker, avoiding left-wing and “anti-fascist” rhetoric. His government has been relatively successful in bringing the pandemic under control. But, compared to other EU states, the country is losing ground economically. Business circles now hope that, since he no longer needs the endorsement of the left, Antonio Costa will focus on a realistic economic policy to reverse the current economic decline.
The CDS-PP crisis and the frustration of PSD voters with the ideological volatility of the party leadership could lead more voters to turn to Chega and IL.
The PSD faces a dilemma: it could take a right turn, to try to win back IL and Chega voters, but that could also mean losing centrist voters. If he persists in his ideological vagueness, he will gradually lose voters to the benefit of the two new right-wing parties. But, having lost the elections, the PSD will face four years in opposition. This time could allow new, ambitious candidates to rise to leadership positions and renew the party.
For the far left, the election was a serious defeat. Together, PCP and BE have fewer MPs (11) than Chega alone. The PAN, an ecologist party and defender of animal rights, was reduced to a single deputy.
After its electoral disaster, BE will try to take advantage of its media and academic influence to denounce the dangers of the “extremist” and “racist” Chega – even if, of the two non-Caucasian deputies, one, Gabriel Mitha Ribeiro, is vice-president of the Chega party.
Without meaningful representation in parliament, the PCP is likely to use its remaining influence in the unions, for example in transport, to dissuade the PS government from implementing certain reforms.