Illustration by Ben Beechener
In January’s Portuguese snap elections, incumbent Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa won a resounding victory for his centre-left Partido Socialista (Socialist Party, PS), managing to win not just a plurality but an outright majority in the Assembly of the Republic, the country’s legislative chamber. With the PS electing 117 out of 230 MPs, and with 2 out of the 4 extraterritorial seats yet to be attributed historically going their way, the Socialists have achieved a historic victory and Costa has reached one of his main political goals: a parliamentary majority. But the radical right party Chega (Enough, CH) also increased its parliamentary representation dramatically, earning a place on the podium.
As the candidates hit the campaign trail, the PS had a lead of over 10 points in most opinion polls. The main question was whether António Costa, leader of the PS and incumbent Prime Minister, would gain a parliamentary majority which would allow him to govern alone or would rule in a minority government like the one that had just collapsed, requiring support from other parties. His focus on ‘stability’, a critical buzzword he repeated countless times at debates, rallies, and interviews, was key to his electoral strategy: convince voters to give the PS a majority, avoiding a minority government forced to negotiate at every turn with other parties.
However, the election became increasingly competitive. Polls showed a rapid rise in the vote share of its main centre-right competitor, the Partido Social Democrata (Social Democratic Party, PSD), meeting and even briefly surpassing the incumbent PS. The last opinion polls before the election gave the PS a lead of 2 to 4 percentage points, within the margin of error. On the 28th of January, when both parties held their last campaign events, Costa confidently said: “On Sunday, we will win and we will defeat this political crisis, returning stability to the Portuguese people”. In turn, the leader of the PSD, Rui Rio, stated the PS “deserved to lose”, having led a campaign focused on misleading voters. “I’m convinced we will win”, he said.
Rio attempted to exploit Costa’s desire for a majority; on 20 January, while on the campaign trail in the northern city of Vila Real, he said, “I have my feet on the ground, unlike António Costa, who asks for an absolute majority at every corner, knowing that’s practically impossible”. Some pundits expected that Costa’s pitch for a majority would harm him in the polls, as voters unhappily remember the last Socialist majority, the 2005 government under José Sócrates, now at the centre of a massive corruption, tax evasion and money laundering scandal.
By the later days of the campaign, it was widely believed that if the PS did manage to score a win, it would be a narrow one. It came as a stunning surprise to many to see the exit polls predict a far more comfortable win for the PS, with a vote share of 37 – 42%, in contrast to the PSD’s 30 – 35% of the votes, leaving them undoubtedly in second place.
As the night went on, however, it was proved that even these polls were perhaps too conservative. The final result was nothing short of a landslide: Costa carried every province, or Distrito, in mainland Portugal, along with the Azores. Only in Madeira did a PSD-led coalition win. This is unprecedented for the PSD. It lost historic strongholds like Leiria, where the PS won for the very first time, or northern Bragança, where a difference of 15 votes meant an additional MP for the PS. With 4 outstanding extraterritorial seats (elected by Portuguese citizens living abroad) to go, the PSD (which historically secures 2 of these) only has 71 seats in the Portuguese parliament, down from 77 before the snap election. Rio took responsibility for the result, saying after a PS majority was almost inevitable that he can no longer see “how [he] can be useful to the party”.
The historic Christian Democratic, right-wing Centro Democrático Social (Social Democratic Centre, CDS), a party as old as the democratic regime in Portugal, was booted out of parliament for the first time in its 47-year history. Its fortunes have wavered, but it has taken part in several coalition governments since 1978, with a 24-strong parliamentary group as recently as 2011 and the Vice-Premiership in the hands of then-President of CDS Paulo Portas. Reacting to its worst results ever, its President, Francisco Rodrigues dos Santos, announced his resignation.
The evening was just as disastrous for the radical left as it was for the traditional centre-right. The radical leftist Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, BE) went from 19 to 5 MPs. An electoral coalition headed by the Partido Comunista Português (Portuguese Communist Party, PCP), similarly lost half of its seats, declining from 12 to 6 MPs. Catarina Martins, the leader of BE, admitted it was a “bad result”, which she blamed on a “very difficult campaign, with false bipolarisation and huge pressure for tactical voting which penalised left-wing parties”.
Third place instead went to the radical right party Chega. The party first took part in parliamentary elections in 2019, just over two years ago, electing a single MP. This time, the party rose to over 7% of votes, with 12 MPs over 8 distritos (mainland Portugal has 18). In his victory speech, André Ventura, the leader of Chega, criticised the mainstream centre-right, arguing it wasn’t “up to its responsibilities”, taking the mantle of leadership for himself by stating “We [i.e., Chega] will be the opposition in Portugal” before taking direct aim at the Socialist Prime Minister: “António Costa, I’m going after you now!” Ventura ran for President last year and, despite the massive increase in his party’s vote share on Sunday, he was still over 100 thousand votes short of his 2021 results.
Another of the evening’s winners was the pro-market Iniciativa Liberal (Liberal Initiative, IL). The IL also first ran for parliament in the 2019 elections, gaining one MP – its current President, João Cotrim de Figueiredo. The goal set by Cotrim de Figueiredo for this election was to elect 5 MPs; they surpassed that goal by electing 8 MPs and leapfrogging the BE and the PCP to fourth place. Cotrim de Figueiredo said “We have proved it is possible to gain votes without being populist or extremist”.
Finally, two other parties, with one MP each, make up the Assembly of the Republic. Environmentalist, pro-animal rights Pessoas-Animais-Natureza (People-Animals-Nature, PAN) almost lost its 4 parliamentarians, electing only its party leader, Inês Sousa Real. “It is with great sadness that I assume this mandate alone”, she said on Sunday evening. Despite winning the same number of seats, the mood was completely different at the headquarters of Livre (Free, L). Party founder Rui Tavares, its single MP, said “the European green left returns to Parliament to stay”. Livre had elected one MP in 2019, Joacine Katar Moreira, who quit the party in acrimony in early 2020. If PAN tells a tale of political survival, Livre is a story of parliamentary resurrection.
It might be helpful to quickly go back to 2015 to understand the roots of the current political situation. In 2015 the Socialists came in second after the incumbent centre-right coalition of the PSD and the CDS, but they outnumbered this coalition when united with the Left Bloc and the Communists. The PSD-CDS government fell before a motion of no-confidence and a minority PS government was formed, with the parliamentary support of the other leftist forces. This was a particularly momentous event in Portuguese politics since a coalition or even a parliamentary arrangement between the Communists (and other far-left forces) and the Socialists had long been perceived as impossible. When, in 2015, Costa began meeting with his counterparts in the BE and PCP, he said: “We’ve had an initial meeting which I consider very positive and that created the conditions for us to put an end to a wall which has persisted in the Portuguese Left since 1975”. This confidence-and-supply governing arrangement was particularly unusual in Portuguese politics – Portas derogatorily called it a geringonça, or ‘contraption’.
After the PS won the 2019 elections, it formed a minority government. Its first state budget was approved with the abstention of the other left-wing parties. The Left Bloc sided with the centre-right and right-wing parties and voted against the 2021 budget bill, though the Communists and the Environmentalists abstained, thus allowing it to pass.
Late last year, however, the PS-led minority government couldn’t pass the state budget through the Assembly of the Republic. For the first time since 2015, the PCP voted against it. While a state budget is not a motion of confidence, the President had already committed himself to call early elections if a deal to pass the budget could not be achieved, as that would mean the parliamentary arrangements on which Costa’s minority government stood were not sustainable.
It was against the backdrop of an exhausted parliamentary solution that this election was fought. The PS’ invocations of stability aimed to blame the left-wing parties, which shot down the state budget, for the early elections and asked the voters for a majority that would make for hassle-free politics. The PSD’s pitch, albeit a little subtler, was that such a majority was impossible and events themselves had shown that a union of the left-wing forces was inherently unstable – it was only the centre-right that could provide a strong, sustainable, and stable government. The counterpoint to this, as many on the Left pointed out during the last few days of the campaign, was that a centre-right/right-wing government would need the support of the far-right. The PS criticised the PSD’s dependence on the far-right to get into office: “The victory of the PS is the victory of democracy because there won’t be any Government dependent on the far-right to be able to govern”, Costa said on the 25th of January. In the same speech, he declared himself proud to be the radical right’s “main enemy”.
By portraying the centre-right as collaborationist with the radical right, and playing up fears of a centre-right government beholden to the radical right, on the one hand, and describing the radical left on which he had relied so far as untrustworthy and unstable, on the other, Costa made it clear for left-wing voters that any vote for the PCP or the BE would be wasted. He stoked voters’ fear by declaring that Rio, a leader criticised within his own party for leaning too much to the left, would privatise social security and charge for access to the Portuguese National Health Service. He refused to commit himself to a collaborative relationship in parliament, making any PSD government that enforced a cordon sanitaire regarding the radical right simply impossible.
Costa guaranteed his victory by siphoning off votes from worried leftists who voted tactically, but he also made sure the radical right came in third. His strategy made any minority PSD government impossible, defeating Rio’s attempts to cultivate some tactical voting of his own; at the same time, it amped up the radical right. It is no mistake that Ventura, in his victory speech, named Costa as their next target and took up the mantle of opposition. By directly addressing the radical right, an office-seeking centre-left politician can unite the left, gain some centrist voters if they’ve done well as an incumbent, and fracture their main centre-right opponent, for the benefit of the radical right. Mutatis mutandis, is not very different from Emmanuel Macron. Or, for that matter, François Mitterrand when he changed the electoral law from first-past-the-post to proportional representation in the 1980s. The increase in the Front National’s representation came at the expense of Gaullist conservatives. As Angelo Petroni wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “the result was that the left was perpetuated in power”.
A few months ago, one of PSD’s MEPs, Paulo Rangel, threw his hat in the ring in a leadership contest against Rui Rio. Though he lost, Rangel’s analysis was ultimately vindicated: Chega is “an objective ally of the PS”; “a stronger Chega allows the PS to perpetuate itself in power”.
For the European Centre-Left, this is ultimately the most important takeaway from the 2022 Portuguese Elections: at what cost is winning no longer worth it? For Costa, a Socialist parliamentary majority outbids 12 radical right MPs.