After two weeks of intense campaigning, all the speeches have been made; all the rallies have taken place; the many debates now part of old news cycles. As we enter a reflection day in the eve of the Portuguese parliamentary election, the electoral campaign is now over.
The country goes to the polls this Sunday as the current four-year parliamentary term comes to an end. Two governments were constituted during the legislature. The first one was made up by the same Partido Social Democrata (PSD-EPP) – Partido Popular (CDS/PP-EPP) coalition which led the country during the troika austerity programme years. However, while the coalition previously ruled with an overall majority, it lost that majority in the 2015 election. Nevertheless, it retained a plurality of the vote and attempted to form a minority government. It faced fierce opposition in parliament and was unable to even approve a programme, lasting for only 27 days and setting a new record for the shortest government in the current republic.
The centre-right coalition’s woes were largely due to the fact that the four centre-left and left-wing parties in parliament held a majority of seats when combined. The second government in the legislature, then, was a minority government by Partido Socialista (PS-S&D), in a confidence and supply agreement with the left-wing parties (Bloco de Esquerda, BE-GUE/NGL; Partido Comunista Português, PCP-GUE/NGL; Partido Ecologista “Os Verdes”, PEV-G/EFA). This arrangement was unprecedented in Portuguese politics: there was no previous example of a government made up of a left-wing coalition; and no government had ever been constituted without the party which had gained the plurality of the vote. The governmental programme, which promised to turn the page on austerity, was broadly derided at the time, as was the agreement between the (centre-) left-wing parties. This agreement was pejoratively dubbed geringonça – a contraption, expected to be fragile and fall at the first hurdle. Defying expectations, the government has lasted for the entire legislature and fulfilled much of its programme (buoyed by favourable macroeconomic conditions), keeping Portugal as a bulwark against the decline of European social democracy.
Opinion polling and the upcoming election
While the geringonça was a clear success as a government solution, the effect on the electoral prospects of its member parties differed. The key beneficiary appears to be PS. The party is on course for a clear victory, polling consistently in first place, with a sizeable (though variable) lead over PSD. PS had been slowing ascending towards a vote share which made an overall majority plausible, mobilising its base and floating votes. The re-emergence of a scandal regarding the theft of a weapons arsenal from an army base, which saw a former government minister charged, has inverted that trajectory. Furthermore, after a lacklustre start to the campaign, PSD vote share is moving up. This can be attributed to good performance by the party leader in the debates, coupled with the PS scandal, which mobilised PSD’s voter base.
Solidifying its role as the country’s third political force, BE appears to have emerged largely unscathed from participation in the geringonça. The same cannot be said of CDU (the PCP/PEV coalition), which is expected to shed 1-2% of its vote share. A more substantial decline is that which is being faced by CDS-PP. If the projected support of just 4-5% of voters comes to materialise, this would be the worst result for the party in almost thirty years. Lastly, and with opposite fortune sits Pessoas-Animais-Natureza (PAN, People-Animals-Nature – G/EFA). The party is expected to grow from a sole MP to a handful – or even slightly more.
In the lead up to the election, all parties which currently make up/support government, as well as PAN have expressed tentative support of a potential (similar) agreement. In turn, the electorate appears explicitly supportive of a version 2.0 of the geringonça; indeed, opinion polls suggest even PS supporters prefer a new agreement to a PS overall majority. In general, voters appear wary of returning to a model of government where a single party holds a majority, but value instead the search for compromise positions and the added (consequential) scrutiny inherent to such an agreement.
From a pragmatic point of view, the likelihood of a potential geringonça 2.0 is largely contingent on the electoral result for PS (and, due to its impact on the former, the lead over PSD). An overall majority for PS – the sole scenario which would render such an agreement moot – has become less likely as the electoral campaign came to an end. As such, a new geringonça is anticipated. This has long been (tacitly) acknowledged by the socialists who quickly started courting PAN as a potential new partner after the latter’s strong showing in the May European election. This arrangement is expected to prove less onerous on PS than the current geringonça, where the (larger) minority partners held greater sway. Still, PS may have to turn to a different partner depending on the number of mandates of both parties, or even seek an agreement with multiple parties once again.
Fragmentation, D’Hondt and electoral prospects of small parties
The number of political parties entering election continues to swell, having reached a new record of 22 (in 21 lists). This reflects a wider trend of political fragmentation of a system once heavily concentrated on 5 (and later 6) political parties – PS, PSD, CDS-PP and PCP/PEV (and later BE). PAN, which entered parliament for the first time in 2015, appears to have gained a more permanent foothold. Beyond this relative newcomer, however, opinion polling suggests there is no clear expectation of other additional parties earning representation.
While Portugal has a proportional representation system and does not apply a formal threshold, it uses the D’Hondt method (which favours larger parties), applied to 22 districts and without compensatory seats. Furthermore, the size disparity between electoral constituencies is great, with the two largest (Lisbon and Porto) electing a similar number of MPs as the 17 smallest. Indeed, in the smaller districts, the proportional representation system bleeds into a first past the post one. As such, smaller parties can only realistically elect in the two large (or, at a push, the three middling) districts.
Nevertheless, several small parties have, at points and in different opinion polls, crossed the 1-2% threshold which would plausibly afford them a chance at electing an MP. Amongst those sit Aliança (Alliance, an offshoot of PSD, similarly centre-right); CHEGA (ENOUGH, right to far-right populist); Iniciativa Liberal (Liberal Initiative, RE); Livre (Free, G/EFA); and Reagir Incluir Reciclar (React Include Recycle, populist, syncretic). Parliamentary representation of any of these parties is contingent on the mobilisation of their (very different) electoral bases in either of the two largest districts.
Compared to the drama of recent elections across Europe, the Portuguese one is positively sedated. Yet, the political programme, composition of government and the entry of new parties into parliament is dependent on what are potentially small deviations from the picture painted by the opinion polls. It may be a quiet election, but it is still by no means a settled one.
(Edited by Euan Healey)