Portugal’s leftwing on the wane

Víctor Honorato

  • Antonio Costa’s surprise absolute majority gives free rein to the Socialist Party (PS) and forces the leftwing parties into opposition.
  • The Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party won 9 percent of the vote after losing 350,000 votes.
  • Tactical voting in response to the rise of the far right, which won 12 seats on 7 percent of the vote, or blame for the early election could help explain the shift in the vote from the leftwing parties to the social democrats.
  • The liberals, who won over young voters in Porto and Lisbon, advocate privatisation and a smaller state.

Contrary to all expectations, the Portuguese Socialist Party (PS) won an absolute majority in the general election on 30 January. Achieving outright victory in every constituency in the country, with the exception of the island of Madeira, Prime Minister Antonio Costa will now be able to complete 10 years in government. For the first time, he will be free to act without negotiating with either left or right.

The outcome of the election differed significantly from the result predicted by the polls, which pointed to a tie between right and left. Polling predictions suggested that both the PS and the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD, centre-right), were in a position to win the election but that they would both be obliged to reach an agreement with ideologically similar parties in order to govern. Following the elections, the Portuguese are now wondering whether the polls were wrong or whether the tight result predicted prompted a last-minute rush to vote. Despite a consistent decline since 2005, turnout rose to 58 percent on this occasion.

Since the election, Portuguese analysts have voiced several alternative or complementary explanations for the result. It is possible that the prospect of a rightwing government dependent on parliamentary support from Chega, the vociferous Portuguese version of the populist radical right, prompted leftwing voters to focus on the PS to the detriment of the parties that had been holding up the geringonça left-wing alliance since 2015. Together, the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) lost almost as many votes (350,000) as the socialists gained (380,000).

Another possible explanation is that voters blamed the PCP and the Left Bloc for the failure to pass a budget for 2022. The PS government’s coalition partners rejected its proposed budget, criticising the fact that the labour market reforms imposed by the Troika after the financial crisis had not been reversed after six years of socialist government. They also accused the government of failing to provide sufficient resources to shore up the National Health System, one of the pillars of Portuguese society built practically from scratch after the 1974 revolution, which is experiencing major funding problems.

The difference in pace between the more prudent socialists, always waiting for the green light from the European Commission, and the more ambitious leftwing parties, keen to restore the rights snatched from ordinary workers a decade ago, is exacerbated by guarded tactical moves. The PS may have preferred to keep its hands free to manage the European recovery funds—that promised manna—without losing support from big business. Another possibility is that the PCP and the Left Bloc especially, whose voters are more aligned with the socialists, were seeking to assert their individuality to avoid being pushed out by the ruling party. Over the last two years, the leaders of the two parties have repeatedly complained that the PS was voting with the PSD in parliament to reject the more ambitious proposals put forward by the leftwing parties.

The fact is that the PS has won an irrefutable victory and is now preparing to implement its manifesto, which is based around the exact budget that was rejected in the autumn. In a reflection of the new era dawning, some changes have been made: a tax on high-income earners has disappeared from the document, according to the weekly newspaper Expresso. This change will lead to an estimated 10 million euro decrease in expected annual revenues due to the way in which capital gains on securities are taxed. Contravening the outcome of the negotiations with its more minor coalition partners last year, the PS has justified delaying the implementation of the tax on the basis that it would have retroactive effect if it came into force immediately, raising concerns as to its legality.

Regardless of the true scope of the manoeuvre, it serves as a nod to the business sector, where the socialists’ absolute majority has been received with great satisfaction. The CEO of BPI bank (now owned by Spain’s CaixaBank), João Pedro Oliveira e Costa, has expressed his delight at the stability that is now on the horizon. “The factors causing uncertainty for the future have been reduced and those in government have been given more responsibility”, he declared.

Salvaging the left

The Left Bloc, which was formed 23 years ago to bring together former revolutionary leftwing organisations, riding the momentum of the youth-led social movements at the end of the last century, had not witnessed such a poor electoral result since 2002. Despite statements by prominent leftwing figures, such as sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who called for the resignation of the Bloc’s coordinator, Catarina Martins, the group’s leaders have stated that no changes will be made to the usual schedule for leadership elections, which will be held in 2023. According to the political resolution adopted by the BE’s national committee at a meeting after the election: “In response to this absolute majority, the Bloc will exercise absolute scrutiny in opposition”. Resistance will also be needed to tackle the rise of the new rightwing parties: “openly racist” Chega and the Liberal Initiative, the mirror image of the Left Bloc on the right, which has attracted young voters in Porto and Lisbon especially, supports privatisation and is “hostile to the social state”.

The right was unable to unite the vote around the PSD on this occasion. Rui Rio, the main opposition party’s candidate for Prime Minister, is no ‘tough guy’. More reactionary sectors slammed his decision to give Costa’s government carte blanche in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when he lent his full support to all public health measures. This stance and his willingness to enter into coalition with the socialists if they won a minority alienated many more radical voters. Nevertheless, Chega’s rapid rise from one MP to 12 failed to live up to polling predictions made a year earlier and the party took just 7 percent of the vote. This stronger parliamentary presence will amplify the voice of the party led by lawyer André Ventura and if it decides to set upon Antonio Costa, it will encounter daily resistance from the Left Bloc, as Catarina Martins declared on the night of the election: “Every racist MP elected to the Portuguese parliament is another racist MP and we’ll be here to fight them day after day”.

Another vector of the Bloc’s strategy concerns environmental issues, which the party aims to make its own now that the Greens have been left without seats in parliament after running for election in coalition with the PCP. The animal rights party, PAN, which sought to make environmentalism its rallying cry, won only one seat and its strength in parliament is limited. Meanwhile, Livre—a breakaway party from the Left Bloc—returns to Parliament thanks to voters in Lisbon and advocates a closer relationship with the socialists.

In the PCP, veteran leader Jerónimo de Sousa, who turns 75 in 2022, is refusing to give up and plans to continue to lead the party. “It’s hard to turn your back on the struggle”, he said. The PCP is a traditional communist party with strong trade union ties and activist networks, whose gradual loss of support owes in part to its ageing voter base, which is deeply rooted in the struggles against the dictatorship. With only five MPs, it is likely that the party will focus its efforts back on mass mobilisation on the streets via its links with the CGTP, Portugal’s largest trade union, which has more than half a million members. This will serve to counterbalance the PS, which is well aware that much of its absolute majority is based on votes lent by the left. “Absolute majority doesn’t mean absolute power”, Costa reassured the country when he was informed of the scale of his victory. Despite this, the communists are wary: De Sousa railed against the “fireworks” set off by “the money lords” to celebrate the result of the election, referring to business leaders and the banking sector.

The role of the Portuguese President

The President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is indirectly responsible for the absolute majority won by the PS. Portugal’s constitutional system granted him the power to dissolve parliament, but it did not oblige him to do so. When the budget negotiations came to a standstill last year, he issued an ultimatum: if the budget was not approved, an election would be called. Instead of alleviating the strain, this put more pressure on the parties and shored up their positions. As a former leader of the PSD, the left viewed Rebelo’s ultimatum as an attempt to put the final nail in the coffin of the geringonça, which had been ill-fated since it came to power. The socialists refused to sign a pact to guarantee a stable term as they had done in 2015. The absolute majority came as a surprise to the president but, at least in this first year, there is little prospect of conflict with Antonio Costa’s government, which has fostered a largely cordial relationship with the president.

About the author

Víctor Honorato is a journalist for media outlets including El País, Agencia EFE, Periódico de Catalunya and Xinhua. Currently working at elDiario.es.