In the Portuguese local elections, an easy win for the center over a split left and a fragile far-right

Nuno Viegas

  • Left-wing Bloco de Esquerda lost nearly every representative it had and failed to challenge for a single presidency.
  • Marxist-Leninist Partido Comunista Português against lost historical strongholds to centre-left Partido Socialista, stuck to a steady decline
  • Far-right Chega ran nationwide but didn’t put uf a fight for any presidencies and elected just 19 representatives.

As the two major power-players in Portuguese politics struggled for the vast majority of municipal chambers across the country, both the left and the far-right struggled to make a dent in the hegemony of the center-left Partido Socialista (PS) and the center-right Partido Social Democrata (PSD). In the 2021 Local Elections, held on the 26th of September, PS held onto the strong lead its accrued since 2013, despite losing some key battlegrounds to PSD, including the capital city of Lisbon, the student-city of Coimbra, and the capital of the Madeira Autonomous Region, Funchal. PS ended up with the presidency in 148 municipalities, to PSD’s 112 (many in coalition with smaller right-wing parties). Overall, 85% of all presidencies.

“PS won”, the Portuguese prime minister and Partido Socialista’s secretary-general, António Costa, declared in the early hours of the morning. “PSD had an excelent result”; said minutes later the president of Partido Social Democrata, Rui Rio. The good result for both parties has one key takeaway: the status quo is holding, with a split left trying to be strong enough to influence PS’s politics, without outright winning elections, and an infant far-right struggling to get a foot in the door.

Communists keep losing ground to the centre-left

The Marxist-Leninist Partido Comunista Português (PCP) again lost historical strongholds, including Mora and Montemor-o-Novo to PS, which it had held since the 1976 local elections, the first after the end of the dictatorship, and failed to recover most of the municipalities it had lost in 2017: the clear defeat in Almada, which PS took over four years ago and now rules with an outright majority needing no formal support from the left to govern, showed little comeback power. The successive losses have come at the hands of an ally. PS, which has been relying on PCP to stabilize a minority government, has been steadily chipping away at the party’s electorate, both in nationwide and local elections. Of the seven presidencies it lost, six went to PS.

“The results lagged behind the goals we set but still confirmed CDU [a coalition of PCP and The Greens] is a major party in local elections”, Jerónimo de Sousa, secretary-general of PCP proclaimed early into the vote count, briefly addressing the election loss before ditching the issue and calling for the protection of worker rights and the expansion of social aid in next year’s budget bill. A quick shift that avoided addressing the party’s long-dwindling electorate.

Pressed by reporters on what the result means for his future at the helm of PCP, Jerónimo de Sousa brushed the questions aside: “If you have any news on that, do tell me, but from what I know my party comrades haven’t put that issue on the table”. Party tradition is to deal with such matters internally, without public disputes for the leadership of the communist party.

But there is a clear favorite for the position: João Ferreira’s continued popularity, after getting good results in bids for the European Parliament and the Presidential Election, sets him up to take up the post when the 74-year-old Jerónimo de Sousa leaves. This Sunday, clocking in at 10% of the vote in Lisbon, a third-place finish, Ferreira held a quasi-victory speech: “the result is a recognition of the work CDU’s elected representatives did for the city. “This vote will be worth it”, he promised, as the party slipped nationwide to holding just 19 municipal chamber presidencies, from the 24 it had in 2017, or the 50 it held in 1989.

Leftist Bloco de Esquerda lost most elected representatives

Catarina Martins, leader of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda (BE), spoke before votes had been tallied, praising the work of party volunteers and independent candidates that ran with BE’s support. The result isn’t expected to shake up the party, which set modest goals and largely stuck to them, never putting up a challenge for any municipal chamber presidencies.

Before polls closed, prime minister António Costa had said the result wouldn’t impact negotiations for the next budget bill as local elections were “irrelevant for BE”. The party didn’t get a single municipal chamber and got just under 3% of the national vote, well below its performance in national elections (it got to 9% in 2019’s vote). This is a known issue for the party: it can’t ground itself in local politics, make effective use of its major national figures in these races, nor call upon politically relevant locals.

It was a lackluster effort after twenty years in mainstream Portuguese politics, that left BE with four representatives in municipal chambers out of the 12 it had in 2017, and the two thousand positions that were attributed with the vote. Lisbon’s switch from a PS presidency to a right-wing mega coalition led by PSD’s Carlos Moedas took away even from those small victories. BE supported the previous president through a post-election coalition and is now left with little influence over the presidency, even if it still elected a representative to the municipal chamber, Beatriz Gomes Dias. The 6% of the vote it got in the capital offers little reassurance about the fidelity of the party’s electorate, dipping from the 7% it had in 2017. Catarina Martins blamed the swing on “PS’ issues in Lisbon over the past few months”, pointing to local scandals including the leak of anti-Putin protesters’ private information to the Russian Embassy by the Municipal Chamber and corruption-allegations surrounding the Arroios Parish president.

The loss of Lisbon to PSD raises questions about the wisdom of running a split ticket in local elections with a first past the post system. PSD won without an outright majority. It’ll govern the capital with 7 representatives, the same number as PS, and against two representatives from PCP and one from BE. The city might have stayed under the tutelage of PS, and the influence of the left, had they run together. In Lisbon, PS did ally itself with eco-socialist Livre, to no effect. Livre, which has for years been trying to break into the political mainstream – and even elected a member of parliament in 2019, which it would lose after months of in-fighting – had a drab night, with nothing to write home about nationwide. Animalist Pessoas-Animais-Natureza also failed to swing any readings of the night.

Right wing parties failed to put a challenge

The far-right Chega managed to get itself on the local map, with some third-place finishes spread around the country, but clear defeats in Lisbon (at fifth, with 4%) and Porto (sixth, at 3%) stained the effort. Party-leader André Ventura’s gamble to run himself for the Municipal Assembly of Moura, where he got 30% in the January presidential elections, sent mixed signals: with 25% of the vote, he couldn’t use nationwide fame to get past local candidates for PCP and PS. The party managed to run in many municipalities but failed to leave a lasting impression in any. The overall 4% of the vote didn’t represent a challenge for any presidencies, getting just 19 representatives elected to municipal chambers. An interesting result for a two-year-old partly, but hardly the revolution the fringe group had been heralding for months, even as its candidates stumbled through often-ridiculed, all-but-amateurish, gaffe-filled campaigns.

Even if there were surprising results around tight races between PS and PSD, or PS and PCP, there were no surprises when it comes to the political reality in Portugal. António Costa’s Partido Socialista is by far the most popular party in the country. Rui Rio’s PSD is keeping up the chase, but there’s no clear path to a nationwide turnaround soon. Even if he says he doesn’t trust polls – and Moeda’s upset win in Lisbon gave him ammunition to make that argument – the numbers aren’t looking good for the right. The libertarian Iniciativa Liberal couldn’t elect a single representative to a municipal chamber, getting just over 1% of the vote. The conservative CDS-PP held onto its six presidencies but took care to set up a nearly nationwide alliance to run in coalition with PSD and disguise individual results after a series of calamitous electoral losses since 2019. Chega might be needed to tip them over the edge of a majority if they ever get to one, but Rui Rio used his election night speech to hint at a growing split from the far-right: “this result shows we have to run as a center party, not chase 4 or 5% to our right”.

That seems to be where Portuguese politics will be staying for a little while: right at the center, with the edges doing their best to influence the behemoth’s decision-making, one bill at a time. They’ll measure their strengths soon when the debate around next year’s budget bill kicks off in full. There, PS will need the support of PCP or BE to get a parliamentary majority. The right is expected to watch from the stands. Same game, different chamber.

About the author

Nuno Viegas is a Portuguese investigative journalist focused on inequality and human rights. He works for the podcast Fumaça, produces audio-essays for Poejo and previously worked with publications such as Rádio Observador and Trust in News.