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Portugal has become a socialist haven

Edward Anderson
February 4, 2022

After Portugal's recent parliamentary elections, a triumphant Socialist Party has left the centre right scrambling for answers and under pressure from both sides of the political spectrum, writes Edward Anderson.

If there was a nightmare result for the centre right Social Democratic Party of Portugal (PSD), it was probably this one. Over seven years into the socialist-led government of Antonio Costa, who took the position as head of a left wing coalition in 2015, hopes were high for a recovery of the PSD position from their horrific performance of 2019.

After the collapse of the left-wing coalition with the smaller Left Bloc party withdrawing support for the Socialist budget, Costa called a snap election. With polls showing PSD on course to gain seats and votes, they would be in a great position to focus solely on the Socialist Party government in the upcoming years.

Indeed, the local elections of 2021 had PSD back on 32 per cent and Portugal was going to have a clean return to two party politics. Instead, PSD managed to lose 3 seats (down from 79 to 76) and remained under 30 per cent of the vote. Another centre right staple of Portuguese political life, the nominally Christian Democrat CDS – People's Party, found themselves losing all 5 seats and eliminated from the Parliament. This was a chastening fall from grace for a Party who had been a member of the Parliament since the first post-Salazar free election of 1975.

Now, of course the Socialist party was able to eat into their former coalition partners and use the fact that without a stable Government the EU would not release the recovery funds that Portugal is lined up to receive. This factor, combined with relative stability under Costa´s Socialist Party and a budget surplus pre-COVID has led to the extraordinary outright majority, with 117 seats for the Socialist Party. It is the first time a Portuguese party has secured an outright majority since 2005 and after nearly eight years in office, it is undoubtedly a personal triumph for Costa.

So perhaps the PSD can take comfort they are up against a highly successful operator and did increase their vote share. Well, not really. It is the third election in a row that PSD have consistently lost seats and when we look at who else did well in this election, the long term signs don´t look positive for them either. For the two parties who gained the most of the night outside of the Socialists were the libertarian Liberal Initiative party and the nativist Chega, both gaining 7 and 11 seats respectively.

The third largest party in Parliament now with 12 seats, Chega has capitalised on growth from their entry into local elections in 2021 as well as a third placed finish in the largely ceremonial 2021 Presidential election to boost the national profile of their leader André Ventura. Although Chega only obtained 7 per cent of the vote, they will be looking to the Vox blueprint over in Spain, who climbed from 10 per cent in the April 2019 Spanish General Election to 15 per cent in November of the same year and are set to be the dominant third force in Spanish politics.

So, not only could the PSD not be seen as a viable alternative to the socialists but they have also failed to unite opposition under their banner and are now more vulnerable to having their shrinking base eaten into by the two distinct versions of right wing politics.

There´s a longer article to be written here about how there is no real link between libertarians and the more nativist offering from Chega. That what we´re seeing is that the loose coalition of both ideologies are realising that they are, in reality, fundamentally opposed to each other and this clear offering is actually better for everyone involved. Indeed, conservatives in the UK need to see just how actual little conservative aims have been achieved and how much liberalism has expanded in the best part of a decade of Conservative Party rule with only the two party system saving that sorry institution. For PSD though, this is an electoral circle that looks increasingly unlikely to be squared.

Almost as worrying as this encirclement is the sheer level of voter apathy displayed at this election. With 42 per cent of voters choosing not to take part, this shows that PSD failed to motivate a sizeable number to support them. However, this isn´t just a worry for PSD. Although in the short term the Socialists have every right to celebrate, they may start to cast a worrying glance at the rise of Chega.

Some people will point out that absent voters are said to broadly split politically on the basis of those who vote. However, we only have to look at the referendum in the UK to see that when long-term non-voters can see their vote actually matter, they are decidedly less ´progressive´ than liberal commentators like to believe. It would be very surprising if Chega are not able to mobilize to greater effect with a larger national profile for party and leader alike whenever the next election comes around to get 5 per cent of those non-voters into the voting booth.

In the short term Portugal can breathe easy with a stable government and the EU now ready and willing to turn the recovery tap on. But in the long term, for so long an island of political stability, Portugal might be set for the same bumpy ride as the rest of continental Europe.

Having previously lived in Catalonia during the 2017 Catalan Referendum, its Unilateral Declaration of Independence and election, Edward is currently based in Madrid writing about Spanish and European politics.
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