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The Shifting Political Winds in the Azores Regional Parliament

The Azores make up one of Portugal’s two far-flung archipelagos and autonomous regions. A cornerstone of that autonomy is a regional parliament—which Azoreans elected this Sunday.

Regional politics, unlike their national counterpart, have been fairly stable since the return to democracy in 1974. The centre-right PSD (EPP) ruled the islands with an overall majority for 20 years, until the centre-left PS (S&D) took the reins in 1996, with a first term as a minority government and an overall majority ever since. Smaller parties have, by and large, struggled to translate their performance in national elections to the Azorean context.

That is, until now.

A fragmented parliament

If Azoreans set out to shake up regional politics, mission accomplished. The combined vote share of the three parties which have (at different points) held the reins of power in the archipelago—PS, PSD and christian democratic CDS-PP (EPP)—has fallen below 80% for the first time.

Above all, the overall majority which PS had enjoyed for 20 years is no more. The party still received the plurality of the vote and is going to great lengths to emphasise that, but its position is weakened. There will also be soul-searching for the left-wing CDU coalition (GUE/NGL | Greens/EFA), which crashed out of the regional parliament with its worst result ever.

In tandem, the parliament is also welcoming some new faces—the animal welfare party PAN (Greens/EFA) and the liberal IL (RE) each elected their first regional MP; and right-wing Chega (ID) will be represented by two MPs, following the first Azores election it contested. These are joined by not one, but two monarchist MPs (one under the MC coalition). The national-conservative PPM (ECR) had never elected more than a sole MP, so this was perhaps the most surprising result of the night.

With a total of eight parties represented, this is the most diverse Azorean parliament in history. It is also the first one where the balance and route to power are not obvious. With the loss of five PS MPs and the CDU MP, the left is reduced to 28 seats—one short of a majority in a parliament of 57. This means the five parties right of centre share a (razor-thin) majority of 29, which does not bode well for potential agreements either.

The road to government

The number of hypothetical governing arrangements is high, but the parliamentary arithmetic will inevitably demand tough decisions. Neither of the two parties with the lion’s share of seats has a clear path to government, despite the large number of potential coalition partners. Still, there are three main scenarios.

PS + CDS-PP + PAN coalition

There is no overall majority on the left, so for PS any realistic route to a majority includes CDS-PP. The christian democratic party has already supported a minority PS government (1996-2000) and links between the two are stronger than in the mainland. PAN, which is ideologically closest to PS (or at least the most pliable) would likely be the only other political force which could be persuaded to join a left-leaning coalition.

PSD + CDS-PP + PPM + IL + PAN coalition

As it became clear that PS had lost its majority, some voices in PSD leaped to calling for dethroning the party altogether and creating a geringonça on the right — a reversal of fortunes from the 2015 national election, where the left-wing parties defeated a PSD minority government and established a majority under a confidence and supply agreement (an arrangement expected to be precarious, which the right pejoratively dubbed geringonça).

Technically, the right-of-centre holds a majority. However, Chega immediately rejected any possibility of a coalition agreement. As such, any majority on the right hinges on Chega’s abstention and the ability to bring PAN into the fold. A five-party coalition would prove to be difficult enough, but a government built on Chega’s implicit collaboration would amount to a house of cards. 

PS minority government

Given the range of options, PS is likely to be tempted to rule as a minority government. Such an arrangement has proved to be successful in the national sphere where PS builds ad hoc majorities with willing partners.

Still, it is worth noting that with the formal agreement with the left ripped up, cracks have started to show and PS has been increasingly forced to look for votes elsewhere — not always successfully. As such, this may come to be a viable government, but it will have a narrow path to thread.

The political winds have shifted and left the Azores dangerously close to a stalemate. The next few weeks may bring either a new normal or a political crisis. It is not immediately clear which is more likely.

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