Alliances Fray as Portugal’s Socialists Rise in Popularity

An alliance between the Socialists, the Left Bloc, and the Communists has ensured a left-wing majority in government since 2015. But on the eve of new elections, with the Socialists doing well in the polls, some in the party want to strike out and ensure a majority all on their own.

On October 6th, Portuguese voters will head to polls. At stake are all 230 seats in the country’s Assembly, with terms set for a maximum of four years. Since 2015, a coalition of the Socialists, the Left Bloc, and the Communists has ensured a parliamentary majority in government, with the Left Bloc, more often, willing to compromise. However, opinion polls are showing stronger support for the Socialists, and some party leaders are considering ditching their allies to secure a majority on their own.

Polling the Public

In a recently released poll conducted by the ICS/ISCTE pollsters for Expresso weekly, the Socialists – the party represented by Prime Minister Antonio Costa – extended their lead over the opposition by 1 percentage point, clocking in at 38 percent, bringing them even closer to a solo majority. This development comes after years of solid, albeit slowing, economic growth.

However, the Socialist party’s apparent lead is still shy of the 43-45 percent needed to form a majority government.

Their main opposition, the Social Democrats, fell behind to 23 percent, having lost two points in comparison to previous polling numbers released in March. Their allies from the conservative CDS-PP party polled even lower, losing three points to clock in at a mere 5 percent.

Both of these parties governed jointly before the last election in 2015, presiding over the period of austerity imposed after an international bailout of 78 billion euros, and a deficit above 11 percent due to the sovereign debt crisis – plunging Portugal into a three-year long recession.

At the time, the three-party alliance of the Socialists, the Left Bloc, and the Communists helped topple the centre-right government in a vote of no confidence.

However the Socialists, who took over with a winning combo of economic growth and fiscal discipline, won praise from both the EU government and Brussels, as well as from international ratings agencies. That years-long period of growth is the strongest expansion since the turn of the century, and means that Portugal’s economy is still expected to outpace the eurozone average, despite the slowdown.

The budget deficit is a mere 0.5 percent, the lowest it’s been in more than 40 years, and the government expects to post their first budget surplus in 45 years in 2020. With this, the Socialists are likely to have more room for political maneuvering even if they fail to clinch a majority in October, despite the fact that economy has slowed down since 2017.

Technically, the government does not require the support of an absolute majority of the Assembly to rule, even if the opposition outnumbers the supporters. In fact, the opposition needs to be a minimum of 116 seats – an absolute majority in the Assembly – for both the government to be rejected or for a motion of no confidence to be approved.

The Socialist party that Prime Minister Antonio Costa heads is leading the polls by 38%, just 1% over the lead opposition. Copyright: Alexandros Michailidis /

The current ruling coalition of the Socialists, the Left Bloc, and the Communists is sometimes an uneasy one. While the Left Bloc is more open to compromise, the Communists are less so. However, with the Left Bloc currently polling at 11 percent, their support alone can put the Socialists in a majority, allowing them to cut out their more recalcitrant partner.

In comparison, the Communists are polling at 8 percent, and remain a possible, if less likely, future ally.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa isn’t tipping his hand, and recently signaled his willingness to renew cooperation with both the Left Bloc and the Communists following the general election – and keeping the Socialists’ chances of remaining in power fairly strong.

“While we are not in 2015, I would take the same decision for the simple reason that the (political) solution has been good, the results have been good in their entirety.” Costa told the Assembly.

However, securing a majority without relying on the Left Bloc or the Communists means that the new government may be more open to foreign investment, a tightened budget, and labour market reforms – as critics say the current government has left public services starved for cash.

Costa has also vowed to address Portugal’s low birth rate, the rising costs of healthcare, and global climate change.

One party may yet play kingmaker: the People-Animals-Nature party, or PAN, which won a seat during the European Parliament elections in May, with 5 percent of the vote. PAN rode a wave of increased concern over global climate change and its deleterious effects on the environment – a sentiment that is on the rise throughout the country and the region.

Currently, PAN is polling at 4 percent.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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