The centre-left Socialist party won Sunday’s elections, but without a clear majority – leaving Prime Minister António Costa the task of cobbling together a working coalition in the coming days. The weeks ahead will decide what alliances will dictate the new government. Costa’s best bet at forming a coalition is re-negotiating with the left-wing parties he worked with closely throughout his last term, but how that will shake out remains to be seen. Since 2015, he has been ruling with a minority government featuring the support of the Left Bloc and Communists – an unlikely alliance dubbed the geringonca, or “odd contraption”.
Renewing the geringonca instead of seeking a formal union seems to be what both the Prime Minister and the Portuguese people prefer. Speaking after the election, Costa said “The Socialist party has clearly won this election and strengthened its position. Stability is essential for Portugal’s international credibility and for attracting investors. We will strive to find solutions that ensure this stability for the entire legislature.”
The Left Bloc, which held onto their nineteen seats, and the Communist party with twelve seats – five fewer than last time – both expressed support for the Socialists. However, it is contingent-based on wage increases, increased public spending, and amended labour laws.
“There is no obstacle for the president to appoint the prime minister and for the government to be formed and start working”, said Communist leader Jeronimo de Souza. “We will determine our position depending on the PS’ [Socialists’] choices, on its budget instruments and the content of its legislative proposals.”
Despite their history, Costa may decide to forgo this alliance simply because the stronger Socialist party has more options. He could seek the backing of the People-Animals-Nature party (PAN), which captured four seats in this election, and Free, an eco-socialist party, both of which relied on increased concern for the environment in Portugal. If this is the choice Costa makes, negotiations could drag on for weeks. Costa could also decide to govern alone, seeking ad-hoc support for specific votes rather than solidifying a formal alliance.
“These negotiations could be more complex than four years ago when the pact on the left was cemented by their common goal to unseat the right”, said political scientist António Costa Pinto.
More of a Good Thing
Costa cruised to victory with his record as leader since 2015. With the geringonca, he reversed deeply unpopular austerity measures, which included cuts to public sector wages and pensions that had been introduced by the previous PSD-led government. He also raised the minimum wage to 600 euros a month and reduced unemployment.
André Azevedo Alves, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Portugal and St Mary’s University, London, said Costa’s main domestic achievement has been to deliver four years of relatively stable government. “Most people didn’t think the government would last more than one or two years”, he said. “Political stability is one of the big factors that Costa and the Socialists have on their side. There was also a very high level of scepticism about a socialist government, with parliamentary support from the far-left, being able to comply with the public finance objectives established by the European Union.”
Despite reversing these cuts, Costa was still able to keep Portugal’s budget deficit down to almost zero. The Portuguese economy is growing faster than the EU average, aided by a booming tourist sector and increased exports. Last year, Portugal had more tourists than inhabitants.
The Socialist party was also possibly aided by the fact that Portugal is not a main destination for migrants and refugees seeking entry to Europe. Unlike fellow southern European states Italy and Greece, immigration was not a significant election issue.
On the other hand, Marina Costa Lobo, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon, noted that Portugal’s fiscal successes during Costa’s last term came at a cost. Overall wages are stuck at pre-crisis levels from over a decade ago, and many say that Costa has not done enough to “turn the page” on austerity.
“[Costa’s] achievements on anti-austerity were achieved through pragmatism, which meant that public investment has decreased dramatically, with resulting difficulties in key areas of public policy like health, transport and others”, said Lobo.
Many public services went under-funded, such as education and healthcare, which in turn provoked strikes. The government also garnered fierce criticism for its mishandling of the 2017 forest fires that killed more than 100 people and ultimately led to the resignation of the interior minister.
Furthermore, a series of scandals – including accusations of corruption, nepotism, and allegedly involving a former minister in an army cover up of weapons theft from a military base – may have also eroded Costa’s overall popularity, and likely cost him the outright majority that pre-election polling had suggested was within his reach.
A Socialist Resurgence
The Socialists’ win is part of a trend in the Iberian peninsula associated with the recovery of Europe’s centre-left in the wake of right-wing, populist, eurosceptic parties that flourished in response to the 2008 financial crisis. The far-right National Renovation Party (PNR) did poorly, especially as Portugal is one of only five EU countries without an elected far-right party in parliament alongside Britain, Ireland, Malta and Luxembourg.
Chega, a second far-right party which emerged last year, also polled very low. However, it did manage to win a single seat in parliament, which lessened celebrations – it is the first time a far-right party has won a seat in the Portuguese parliament since the end of the Salazar dictatorship in 1974.
By contrast, the centrist and leftist parties did very well. In the previous parliament, the Socialists had 86 seats; they now have 106. The opposition, the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), are left with 77 seats, which is their worst result since 1983. Still, this leaves Costa ten seats short of the majority he needs.
“We would like this change in Portugal to spread to other countries in Europe because we would have a better Europe”, Pedro Nuno Santos, Housing and Infrastructure Minister, said to reporters as election results were coming in.
This pro-left reversal is holding across Europe. In Sweden, the Social Democrats held onto their majority last year and formed a government. Meanwhile, Finland’s centre-left party came in on top for the first time in twenty years. Denmark retained a left-leaning government for its third elections in a row, and in Italy the Democratic party has formed an alliance with the Five-Star Movement after working together to oust the far-right League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini.
Pro-EU citizens and Socialists across the European Union were heartened by Portugal’s election results. “Portuguese society again chooses stability, equality and social justice”, said Pedro Sánchez, the acting Spanish Prime Minister. “With the victory of the Socialist party, they are betting on a project of the left, progressives and modernisers. Let’s continue working together for a fairer Europe.”