Portuguese elections usher in a new period of political instability

Two weeks after the parliamentary elections, the new Portuguese government of the PS (Socialist Party) will officially take office on 23 October. This much is certain – what is not so clear is which of the PS’s potential “allies” (Bloco de Esquerda; the Communist Party and the Greens; the petty-bourgeois environmentalist party PAN; and the smaller left-reformist “eco-socialist” party LIVRE) will support this government – and to what extent.

Excluding the possibility of a deal with the left parties identical to that of 2015 – and of a formal, written agreement between them – all bills and budgets will have to be negotiated individually.

The results

In the elections of 6 October, the PS was confirmed as the largest party (as the polls anticipated), with 36.34 percent of the vote (growing by slightly more than 4 percent compared to 2015). However, it did not achieve a clear majority of 40 percent that would have allowed it to govern alone. The PS therefore found itself forced to ask for support from other left or centre-left parties.

In 2015, the scenario was completely different. In those legislative elections, the centre-right PSD received the largest vote share in coalition with the Christian CDS party, leaving the PS in second place. Hence the need for Antonio Costa's party to lean on the left-wing BE and PCP-Green coalition in order to command enough parliamentary support to govern. This led the PS into a formal agreement with these parties, so that they would lend their votes in parliament to a minority PS government (the “gerinconça”).

Catarina Martins Image Rui OrnelasBoth BE and the PCP-Greens were punished for their concessions to the PS, although BE maintained the same number of deputies and is the PS' most viable ally for establishing a functional government / Image: Rui Ornelas

The Bloco de Esquerda and the PCP-Greens coalition, on the other hand, achieved 9.52 percent and 6.33 percent of the vote in this month’s elections. This was a worse result compared to the 2015 elections (which saw 10.19 percent for BE and 8.25 percent for the PCP-Greens), and in the case of the PCP, substantially worse. By contrast, the PAN and the LIVRE doubled their votes compared to 2015, securing four deputies and one respectively. These two parties were invited by the PS to provide support to the government, in the same way as BE and the PCP-Greens.

The two right-wing parties, PSD and CDS – which in these elections did not form coalition as in 2015, but competed alone – both had a disastrous result. Compared to 36.86 percent of the votes in 2015, this time, 27.76 percent of the votes went to the PSD and a measly 4.22 percent to the CDS. Two new right-wing parties founded a few months ago, the centre-right Iniciativa Liberal and the far-right Chega, took 1.29 percent of the vote and secured one deputy each.

Victory for “none of the above”

One thing that cannot be ignored in these elections is the very high abstention rate of 51.4 percent. It is necessary to reflect on this. In the first free elections after the 1975 dictatorship, the abstention rate was 8.5 percent. The number has continued to increase rapidly, reaching 41.9 percent in 2011 (the year of the application of the troika measures) and 44.1 percent in 2015.

The number of non-voting Portuguese living abroad was an enormous 89.2 percent. Even putting aside various technical difficulties in exercising the right to vote while out of the country, it is important to emphasise that the phenomenon of emigration, historically very strong in Portugal due to the weakness of the economy, has not stopped even in the last four years of economic recovery. From the 2011 crisis until the end of 2018, almost one million Portuguese people emigrated, most of them aged between 20 and 29.

The emigration of young people and the overall abstention data are closely connected. This age bracket mostly does not participate in elections, whether living in Portugal or elsewhere. The last European elections this year are an example of this: compared to an overall abstention rate of 68.6 percent, 81 percent of 18-24-year-olds abstained.

The bourgeois media explains this as a general disinterest of the youth towards politics. However, given that young people have been deprived of a bright future by the troika, are forced to emigrate, and are subjected to precarious and low-paying jobs, high tuition fees and lack of university housing – despite the economic recovery – it is hardly surprising they cannot see any political force that represents their interests.

Yet, young people continue to take an interest in politics, even if this isn’t expressed through the traditional parties. The latest demonstrations about climate change – which saw a massive mobilisation of young people all over the world – have also seen high participation in Portugal. This testifies to the great potential of a generation that is looking for a point of political expression.

PCP and BE lose ground

Both left-wing parties, BE and PCP, ran their electoral campaign under the slogan of: "Give our parties more strength and more votes". Both have claimed credit for the few concessions won from the PS over the past four years, which they claim were down to their applying “pressure.” They argued that, if given more support, they would have more deputies and thus more votes to press for further concessions. The BE, which was more optimistic about its electoral prospects, expressly stated its ambition to become a coalition partner in government.

The results produced a different scenario than expected: not only did these two parties not grow but actually lost votes compared to 2015, confirming the trend of the last European elections. The loss of votes (except in some cases where the BE won votes and lost them elsewhere) was consistent for all the districts. In the districts where the majority of workers are concentrated, Porto and Lisbon, both parties lost a lot of support. The same happened in the Setúbal district, where last year the hard struggle of port workers took place (which the PCP-aligned CGTP largely ignored), and where the PCP had continued to gain support until 2015.

In both cases, it is clear that supporting the government has not benefited the PCP or BE, and that many of their votes have moved to the Socialist Party. The idea of PCP and BE as champions of workers' rights against the PS was severely undermined by their approval of the last modification of the labour code by parliament, which not only did not cancel the disastrous measures introduced under the troika, but added more by lengthening probation periods for young people in their first jobs or the long-term unemployed, and lengthening the maximum duration of short-term contracts.

PCP poster Image Flickr Benjamín Mejías ValenciaThe PCP suffered for refusing to resist the PS' anti-worker policies, its inaction in recent struggles over housing and the environment; and its attacks on workers for joining small, radical unions / Image: Flickr, Benjamín Mejías

However, although neither party gained ground, there is a reason BE managed to maintain the same number of deputies while the PCP suffered a decisive downsizing. The BE’s election campaign appealed for votes with the objective of not letting the PS obtain an absolute majority. Added to this were the clashes in parliament between the leader of Bloco, Catarina Martins, and the leader of the PS, Antonio Costa. Furthermore, the image of a "youthful" party – open to LGBT issues, for example – as opposed to the traditionalist PCP, supported by a more mature and socially conservative electorate, has always been a factor in the relative success of the two parties.

It is worth noting that the BE is not organised in the trade unions, although it has an activist front, scattered here and there in various campaigns. The PCP by contrast has a deep-rooted and strong influence in the CGTP: the main Portuguese trade union. The inaction of the CGTP in the face of attacks on workers by the PS government – due to greenlight for these attacks given by the PCP in parliament – has led voters to punish the PCP more harshly than the Bloco.

Moreover, the PCP not only limited itself to keeping the CGTP in check, but also took a hostile attitude towards new, small unions that have arisen in recent years during the struggles of workers from various sectors (professors, nurses, truck drivers, etc.) These new unions have come about precisely in response to a need for greater radicalism, which is lacking from the CGTP. While the PCP’s objections that these smaller unions were splitting the workers, the fact remains that the needs of the workers who jumped over had not been recognised under the CGTP. These workers were not offered a real alternative and were denigrated along with the unions they joined.

Alongside the emergence of the new trade unions, the movements that have seen the greatest participation in the streets have not been the traditional territory of the CGTP and the PCP. In addition to the climate movement, there has been the struggle over affordable housing. Moreover, on 8 March (International Women’s Day), for the first time in the history of Portugal, five trade unions participated – but the CGTP did not, instead announcing a demonstration for the following day.

Another factor was the growth of the PAN and LIVRE parties. The first, an environmental and animal rights party founded 10 years ago, is an ‘issue-based’ organisation that defines itself as neither right nor left wing. The renewed interest in climate issues led the party to double its support in four years. This did not happen for Greens, who are in coalition with the PCP, since they are considered subordinate to and indistinguishable from their coalition partners. LIVRE, representing the Portuguese section of Varoufakis' DiEM25, for the first time won a deputy: a Guinea-Bissau native who is known as an anti-racist activist. The party has won support for its defence of minority rights, by virtue of proposals to offer immediate citizenship to the children of migrants residing in Portugal, and the creation of ethnic quotas in parliament.

The defeat of the traditional right-wing parties, and the new right-wing

The two traditional centre-right parties, PSD and CDS, faced their worst-ever defeats since 1975, which led to an internal questioning of whether they had suffered from straying too close to the centre. In fact, the PSD envisaged the possibility of a broad agreement with the PS over laws supported by both parties. The PSD and CDS are identified with the austerity of the previous period, and have not been able to consolidate themselves as reliable alternatives for the bourgeoisie.

Chega Image Official TwitterThe collapse in support for traditional right-wing parties opened space for 'anti-establishment', far-right outfits like Chega / Image: Official Twitter

After four years of government under the Socialists, the economy has assumed the stability necessary to allow the capitalists to start amassing profits again. Labour costs have remained low, and workers’ rights, which were greatly reduced during the crisis, have not been restored. What reason would the bourgeoisie have to complain and trust the right again? This all explains the terrible result of the two right-wing parties. However, they are not dead yet, and remain a reserve weapon for the ruling class. Should a recession hit, necessitating harsher measures against workers – and should Antonio Costa fail to carry out these measures, under the influence of the left – the bourgeoisie will not be so friendly towards the Socialists.

Two new right-wing parties have entered parliament: Iniativa Liberal and Chega, undercutting some of the support for the traditional right. The latter – whose name means “Enough” – defines itself as anti-system and anti-corruption, and its programme consists of populist and xenophobic proposals. Its approach is very much akin to that of Lega in Italy, or Vox in Spain. It demagogically appeals both to the middle classes and more backward layers of the working class with openly racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric. It polled strongly not only in the largely rural areas of Santarém, Portalegre and Evora, but also in Lisbon, the working-class districts of Setúbal and Beja, and the Algarve – receiving around 2 percent of the vote in each of these regions.

The contrasting statements of Chega and the BE immediately after the election results were confirmed perfectly encapsulated how this far-right outfit attracts poorer sections of the working class, whose votes have traditionally gone to the left parties. While Bloco’s statement emphasised support for a PS government, Chega’s André Ventura explicitly defined his party as “against the system”.

The liberal foreign media has lauded Portugal for its apparent immunity to the rise of the far right across Europe. This is no longer true. For the first time since the overthrow of Salazar’s dictatorship, a far-right deputy is present in the Portuguese parliament.

It is clear that support for these new right-wing outfits is still low, and also related to the defeats faced by the traditional right. But the left must still avoid compromising too much with the "system" if we do not want reactionaries, posing as being anti-establishment, to proliferate in Portugal, as they have elsewhere in Europe. If we allow this to happen, it will be futile to complain of the workers “moving to the right” – the left will have only itself to blame.

Economic and political perspectives for the next period

The economic prospects today are completely different than four years ago. The most optimistic Portuguese growth forecasts for 2020 are 1.9-2 percent. The IMF speaks of 1.6 percent. This is higher than for the eurozone as a whole, but still lower than in previous years (3.51 percent for 2017 and 2.44 for 2018). At the same time, public debt continues to be one of the highest in Europe (behind only Greece and Italy) at 123 percent of GDP, while public investment – steadily decreasing from 2015 – is forecast at 2.1 percent of GDP.

The Portuguese economy (which has grown in recent years due to tourism, real estate speculation and low labour costs), sends most of its exports to European countries that are heading towards another economic downturn. The conditions for maintaining the Portuguese economy are fragile, and highly dependent on the rest of Europe.

PAN Image Official TwitterThe PS is keeping its options open in terms of cobbling together support from BE, PCP, and smaller parties like LIVRE and PAN / Image: Official Twitter

In this context, it is difficult to foresee BE and the PCP being able to extract from a PS government any real measures to support workers. After all, they have not been able to achieve this in the good years, and through this failed strategy, they have faced a poor electoral performance. The only way for the BE and PCP to win meaningful concessions for the working class would be to come out clearly in opposition to the PS’ anti-worker policies, and seriously mobilise the workers. In a scenario of economic decline, the choice of standing with the PS or in defence of the workers would be even starker than now.

The PS has also invited the new parties, PAN and LIVRE, to support the new government. This is to have more freedom to manoeuvre, by keeping its options open with regards to possible political allies. There is no written agreement between them – nor even with the PCP and BE. Each new bill will be discussed and negotiated individually. To approve the state budget, as well as other laws, the PS, which elected 108 deputies, needs the support of another 8. It consequently needs either the PCP (with 12 deputies) or the BE (19 deputies) to vote in favour, because PAN and LIVRE (with 5 in total) are not enough.

The most viable ally for the PS is the BE. Even if the PS has refused to sign a written agreement with BE, in which the latter would have included its own proposals, the BE still has ambitions of holding the balance of power in the future government. On the other hand, from the outset, the PCP refused any kind of written agreement and a new gerinconça, and it is also said to be ready to negotiate each law individually. The goal is to stem its haemorrhaging of votes, resulting from past compromises with the government.

The situation before us is one of considerable political instability. Despite the BE's declared loyalty to the PS, the balance between the various parties could change rapidly. The PS has never hidden its desire to reach an absolute majority – it is weary of always having to negotiate – and could be intending for the legislature to fall early, with the goal of calling fresh elections.

Workers and youth still face great political and economic uncertainty, given serious housing problems, reduced access to education and healthcare, wages that are among the lowest in Europe, and rampant precarious work. There are strong contradictions in Portuguese society, which will not lie dormant forever, and will continue under any parliamentary scenario in the coming period.

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