The Progressive Post

Out but not over: Socialists’ electoral tie in Portugal

Member of Parliament in Portugal
14/03/2024


After eight years in government, the Portuguese Socialists will go into opposition. In the election with the highest turnout since 1995, citizens voted for a change. Surprisingly, however, this was not embodied by a higher vote share of the ‘Democratic Alliance’, the mainstream right coalition, but by the now all-too-common surge of a far-right party, Chega.

We’re in uncharted waters. Just as improbable as the political stability of ‘Geringonça’ partnership with further-left parties, Prime Minister António Costa had achieved a surprise majority in the January 2022 elections. Two years later, economic success and sound reforms were mired by political turbulence, with the government’s credibility tarnished by scandals and resignations. The last straw came on 7 November when the Prosecutor’s Office conducted searches and arrests in the home and office of the PM’s chief of staff, the environment ministry and the PM’s lawyer’s ‘best friend’. A press release from the prosecutor general announced that suspects had mentioned the prime minister’s authority and that he, too, would be investigated, prompting Costa’s resignation. One week later, a judge threw out most suspicions on lack of grounds. To this date, Costa is yet to be heard. Leaks to the press reveal a lack of basis for any inquiry at all.

Snap elections were called for 10 March. The Socialists had the huge task of electing a new leader and overcoming this crisis in a way which combined pride in what was achieved and an acknowledgement of what needed to be changed. More than just judicial brouhaha, faltering public services as well as soaring rents and house prices left many unsatisfied with the dividends of Portugal’s stellar economic performance. Add this to normal fatigue with government and you have the perfect recipe for electoral disaster. But, this was not what happened.

In a hotly contested leadership vote, members elected the charismatic left-wing firebrand Pedro Nuno Santos as leader of the PS, with support from both the left and right wings of the party. Santos united the party, including many of his opponents in the Party lists and it seemed like a victory could be ahead of us. A right-wing ‘Democratic Alliance’ coalition was reenacted between the centre-right Social Democratic Party, the conservative right People’s Party and the tiny Monarchist Party. Progressives made ‘bingo’ scorecards with the right’s leading candidates calling for climate denial, armed militias, migrant scapegoating and even a new abortion referendum.

Reality, however, has a way of catching up, with a little help from friends in the media, whose anti-government bias shone through clearer than ever. People may not have liked the Democratic Alliance, but they wanted change anyway – and that is what they voted for. While the AD Coalition achieved 29.5 per cent of the vote (79 seats), down from a total of 30.9 per cent for their respective parties combined in 2022 (72 seats), the far-right Chega increased their vote from 7.2 to 18.1 per cent and their seats from 12 to 48. Meanwhile, outperforming all polls and forecasts, PS almost tied with AD, tallying only 50 thousand fewer votes, and receiving the same number of seats (77) as the largest party in the AD coalition, the PSD.

The Socialists quickly conceded defeat. The fall in voter share (minus 13 percentage points) and number of seats (40 seats less) more than justified this. The Democratic Alliance are celebrating their pyrrhic victory, announcing that they will form a minority government, either by themselves or in coalition with the liberals (5 per cent, eight seats, unchanged as compared to the 2022 election). Their path to take office is clear, with the Socialists announcing they will not approve a motion of nonconfidence in the house. Their troubles lie shortly ahead, however, as Santos has announced that the PS will not vote for the right’s budget. In other words, if the right wants to govern, they have to find their own majority.

Pedro Nuno Santos’ rejection of a ‘grand coalition’, even if only in a parliamentary cohabitation, is a firm and long-standing commitment. It had not only been one of the main cleavages in the PS’ leadership election, but was also one of António Costa’s legacies as PS leader. After the last ‘Democratic Alliance’ government, the PS’ historic leader, Mário Soares, led a ‘Central Bloc’ government between 1983 and 1985 to save the country from bankruptcy and manage an IMF bailout, with disastrous electoral consequences. Guterres’ first minority government, between 1995 and 1999, saw budgets and other laws passed by the PSD, led, back then, by the current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. After losing his majority in 2009, José Sócrates preferred negotiations with the PSD, until they withdrew support from a Brussels pre-approved austerity package, forcing the country into another bailout. 

Not supporting the right’s government is, however, about much more than nightmarish memories, established policy or hurt pride. Costa and Santos both subscribe to the idea that the two main parties should lead a distinct ideological ‘bloc’, alternating in government as real alternatives to each other. Crucially, with a burgeoning far-right, if PS does not lead the opposition, that task would be left to Chega and their hateful ideas. Santos communicated this clearly during the electoral campaign. Moreover, left and right put forward truly different policy options for the economy, taxes and public services.

Without the Socialists, only a favourable vote by Chega can make the Democratic Alliance’s budgets pass. The AD’s leader, Luís Montenegro, has said ‘no is no’ to talks with Chega but time will tell if his word is worth more than political expediency. Ultimately, the right got what they asked for. Radicalised since the troika years and with Chega starting as a PSD spin-off, the centre-right tried to compete for voters by adopting the far-right’s issues, policies and style. Instead of containing it, they fostered Chega’s growth. Now, they will not only face the hard choices of government, but they will also pay the price for failing to lead the opposition to Costa’s government competently.
We Socialists will have to do some reckoning with our record in government and what went wrong in the campaign. However, it is not and will not be our responsibility to give the Democratic Alliance the seats they did not earn by themselves. We owe to our voters, and we owe it to our democracy to honour our manifesto and lead a strong and credible opposition. If the right’s troubles are any lesson, it is that only by being a real alternative can we ever truly win again.

Photo Credits: Partido Socialista

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