The results of the September 28 Portuguese local government elections would seem obvious: the big winner was the opposition Socialist Party (SP), and the big loser the governing alliance of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Democratic and Social Centre—People’s Party (CDS-PP).
The pattern was the same at all three layers of local government for which the Portuguese vote — municipal assemblies (councils in Australia), municipal chambers (the councils’ full-time executives, headed by the mayor), and parish or ward committees.
Of Portugal’s 308 local government areas, the SP now holds the mayoralty in a record 149 (up 17 from the 2009 poll). The various alliances of right-wing parties control only 105 (down 34).
Yet the vote of the SP, the governing party until 2011, actually fell, especially in far northern and far southern Portugal. Nationally, the PS vote dropped by 1.4% (to 36.3%). However, the vote for the right-wing coalitions collapsed by much more (nationally, by 12.2% to 26.5%).
Within the right wing, support for the PSD, the party of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, has now nosedived from 38.7% to 16.7% during its past two years of government.
The biggest gains actually went to the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), standing in alliance with the Greens in the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU), and to “citizen group” tickets.
The CDU vote rose by 1.3% to 11.06% (corresponding to 34 mayoralties, up six). The vote for “citizen group” tickets rose by 2.8% to 6.9% (13 mayoralties, up six).
The independent citizens’ biggest scalps were the mayoralties of Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, and of Funchal, capital of tax haven Madeira, ending 38 years of corrupt right-wing rule on the island.
The other big “winner” was voter apathy. Turnout fell by 6.4% to 52.6%, while blank and invalid votes more than doubled to 6.82%.
To further complicate the picture, the winning parties also took losses, while the losers still managed the odd win against the tide.
For example, the CDU, at the same time as achieving important wins in the “red South” (Beja and Evora, where it recaptured these capitals from the PS), still lost Chamusca, Crato, and Nisa (towns in the centre Alentejo region) to the PS.
The PS, despite its reconquest of important cities like Coimbra, Sintra and Gaia in the north, still lost district capital Braga and regional centre Guarda to the PSD.
The Left Bloc (BE) had a poor election. Traditionally a weak performer in municipal politics, the left coalition lost its only mayor as its vote fell by 0.6% to 2.4%. Its bid to break into Lisbon, Sintra and Porto councils with high-profile MP candidates failed — only by 52 votes in the case of Lisbon.
Its chief success came through taking part in the “Change!” citizen’s campaign on Madeira.
The CDU managed a more powerful campaign than the Left Bloc against the austerity imposed on Portugal by the “troika” (European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund). It succeeded in drawing in a new layer of young activists, producing a campaign with more verve than many PCP-led campaigns in the past.
These elections revealed a Portugal completely fed up with the social misery imposed on the country from Brussels, with the ruling right now in a clear social minority.
However, the inability to date of anti-austerity left forces to create a united alternative that breaks the exiting political mold will, if it continues, give life back to the PS (guilty of “bringing in” the troika in 2011), It will also help boost apathy and distrust of politics of any sort.
The mass protests planned for October 19 (by the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers) and October 26 (by the “Stuff the Troika!” movement) will be the next important moments in the ongoing campaign to isolate Portugal’s ruling right.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]