Portuguese elections: right trounced by more variegated left

Graphic: Agence France Press

The results of the October 6 elections for the 230-seat Portuguese parliament delivered four main outcomes: a historic thrashing of the traditional parties of the right; a strong lift in support for the governing Socialist Party (PS) of Prime Minister António Costa; increased variegation of the vote to the left of PS; and a record abstention rate of 45.5%.

The result leaves the PS (106 seats) without an absolute majority, yet frees it from dependence on the support of both the Left Bloc (BE) and Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). This arrangement, set in place in 2015 and known as the “contraption”, can now be replaced by an agreement with only one of these parties.

Given the threatening world economic situation, Costa may even decide that it is best to govern without any agreement with these parties to his left. Their election campaigns both detailed unfinished social and environmental agendas that the PS, under pressure from the European Union (EU) to govern responsibly, will be wary of accepting.

The PS’s negotiating position is stronger because it gained 21 seats while the PCP lost five (down to 12) and the BE remained unchanged (on 19).

The four seats (up by three) won by the animal rights and green party People Animals Nature (PAN) and the one seat won by the ecosocialist Livre (Free) also give Costa other possible combinations of partners if he decides not to govern alone.

Twenty seats shifted from right to left on October 6. This movement reduced the parties of the right from 46% to 37.2% of the 226 parliamentary seats decided within Portugal. At the time of writing the results for the four seats elected by the Portuguese diaspora have still to be announced.

The reduced right also mirrored the increased dispersion of the left, with Portugal’s first openly racist and xenophobic party Chega (Enough) and the “centrist” Liberal Initiative (IL) winning one seat apiece.

The right’s biggest loser was the nationalist conservative Social Democratic Centre - People’s Party (CDS-PP), whose leader Assunção Cristas resigned as a result of its 4.3% score (down from 11.7% in 2011).

PS gains

The nature of the PS’s gains (up 4.3%), the BE’s stall (down 0.6%) and the PCP’s retreat (down 1.8%) becomes clearer when looking at the voting shifts in Portugal’s 20 voting districts (these include the islands of Madeira and the Azores).

The PS’s advance overwhelmingly came at the expense of the mainstream right Social Democratic Party (PSD). It took place in 15 districts, leaving the PSD completely without seats in three of them.

In 2015, the united right-wing coalition Portugal in Front (the PSD plus CDS) led in 13 districts: this time the PSD led in only five as the total vote of the traditional parties of the right fell by 6.2%.

The result was that Portugal’s customary map of election results, in which a red south contrasts with a blue north, was transformed as left majorities spread northward.

The remainder of the vote that deserted the traditional right parties, roughly one-third of the total, went to IL and Chega.

Gains by the PS at the expense of the BE and PCP were rare: one or maybe two seats in the case of the BE and three in the case of the PCP.

The increased fragmentation of the vote took place most of all in the Lisbon district. Here the 18 seats won by Portugal in Front in 2015 turned into 16 seats divided between four tickets. On the left, the PS increased its haul from 18 to 20, the BE held onto its five seats, the PCP lost one seat while PAN and Livre won a seat apiece.

PAN picked up its other two gains in Portugal’s other major urban centres, the industrial city Setúbal (at the expense of the PCP) and the northern city Porto (at the expense of the BE).

PCP and BE

Of the parties to the left of the PS, the PCP suffered the biggest losses, with its vote falling in absolute and percentage terms in all 20 districts. Two of its five-seat losses took place in its traditional stronghold, the southern Alentejo district, while the other three were lost in Lisbon, Porto and the northern coastal district of Braga. Three of the seats lost went to the PS, with the BE and PAN taking one apiece.

The BE managed to retain its 19 seats, confirming its position as Portugal’s third-largest party. It offset losses in Madeira (to the PS) and Porto (to PAN) with gains in Braga (from the PCP) and Aveiro (taking the last seat of the right’s three-seat loss).

The BE registered absolute vote losses in 14 districts (sometimes by very narrow margins) and gains in six: its percentage vote rose in 12 districts, with the biggest gain being from 9.89% to 11.18% in the university city of Coimbra.

The BE’s biggest loss was on Madeira, where its vote fell from 10.66% to 5.24%.

A feature of the BE vote was the gains in northern and some inland regions, a measure of the work done by its members to get beyond its big city origins.

However, this advance came with a decline in its support in the main cities (Lisbon, Setúbal and Porto). When added to the decline in the PCP vote, this shift looks to be partly due to a turn by progressive voters towards the apparently greener alternatives of PAN and Livre in a context marked by the climate crisis.

The fact that the PCP has run with a partner called The Ecologist Party – The Greens (PEV) in the United Democratic Coalition (CDU) since the 1980s has not convinced this constituency that the CDU is the political vehicle for addressing Portugal’s ecological concerns.

Demands

The basic dynamic of the October 6 election campaign was set by the demands of the PCP and BE, each stressing the issues left unsolved by the first-term Costa government.

The BE stressed the need for a plan to address the climate crisis, an attack on the casualisation caused by EU-imposed labour market reform and saving the national health system.

Also critical for the BE was action on housing costs and public housing provision, due to the explosion in house prices in Lisbon and Oporto as investment and vulture funds buy up entire neighbourhoods in these beautiful cities.

For the PCP, the key areas were, as repeated in its statement on the election result: “A general increase in wages and in the national minimum wage to €850; an overall and real increase in retirement pensions; the right to a free creche for all children up to the age of three; the right to housing with guarantees for tenants and the construction of public housing.”

It also called for: “More funds to improve public transportation; more investment that is lacking in the National Health Service and in public services; 1% [of the budget] for culture; [and] guarantees of protecting nature, the environment and ecological balances.”

Against these demands the PS campaigned as the party that had shown that it could bring about social reform without endangering economic surpluses and debt repayments. In other words, relations with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup council of EU member state treasurers (chaired by Portugal) would be safe in its hands.

In a context where all polls were showing no hope at all of a victory for the right, the PS’s stance was an invitation to PSD and CDS-PP voters to support it as a counterweight to the “pretensions” of the BE and PCP.

This message, which was taken up by the establishment Portuguese media and saw slanderous attacks on the PCP in particular, worked well for the PS: the left vote increased, but the PS vote within it increased most of all.

The near-certainty of a left victory also encouraged the two other main trends on October 6: there was no risk in voting for progressive parties other than the established BE and PCP and there was no need to vote at all.

Coalitions

After the 2015 Portuguese legislative election there was only one alternative to a government of the right: the PS-BE-CDU-PAN coalition, which blocked its resumption of power and then came to an agreement on the issues that allowed the formation of the Costa administration.

Now, after this election, commentators are pointing to eight possible “contraptions” that might be the basis of a second-term PS government.

These variants range from a “contraption 2.0”, supported by all the parties to the left of the PS, to an “abstentionist contraption”, where all abstain but the PS’s 106 votes are still enough to defeat the right’s 84.

In the struggle for hegemony over the space to the left of the PS, the manoeuvring has already begun, with the PCP, hurt by its poor result, announcing on October 9 that this time it will not be submitting a document to the PS for negotiation.

On the same day, BE leader Catarina Martins handed Costa the BE’s initial position, requiring action around the climate crisis, the public health system and labour market regulation.

The final “contraption” that emerges from these negotiations will tell us a lot about the main forces operating in Portuguese politics as economic downturn looms closer.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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