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Portuguese Presidential Elections In-Depth: Strange Bedfellows, a Landslide Victory and Signs of Political Realignment

Last week, the Portuguese kicked off the 2021 electoral calendar with an election with few surprises.

Just under 40% of eligible voters went to the polls. In some ways, this is good news. There were serious questions about the propensity of electors to face the hazards of in-person voting during a pandemic, particularly when the election was all but decided. Yet, they did—and at a rate only five percentage points lower than in 2016 for voters across Portugal. The remaining five-point decrease of the ten points in total and shown on right is due to changes in how to account for voters abroad. Even if turnout dropped, that rate was remarkable; for the past 30 years the re-election of presidents was accompanied by a steady 15 percentage point drop in turnout. 2021 bucked that trend.

Still, it is inescapable that turnout in this election was a record low for all presidential, parliamentary and local elections. Only European elections—notorious for their low levels of participation—have the dubious honour of attracting fewer voters. This would have been concerning for the legitimacy of the (re-)elected president, if it was not for his resounding victory.

Indeed, the key story in this election is that of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and the broad (and unlikely) support base which coalesced around his re-election effort. The sitting president, who spent over 40 years as a member of the centre-right Partido Social Democrata (PSD, EPP), won all there was to win. He held first place across all municipalities, which is unprecedented. He increased his overall share of the vote compared to the 2016 presidential elections. He even increased the absolute number of votes earned, despite the sizeable drop in turnout. The hold Rebelo de Sousa has over the country is unassailable.

On the flipside, the election was nothing short of disastrous for the left of centre. Second place was secured by the centre-left candidate Ana Gomes (Partido Socialista, PS, S&D), but with a paltry 13% of the vote. Combined, all three left of centre candidates make up a block of only 21%, which is a record low—and a steep decline. The vote share amounts to half of the result in 2016, which was itself a record low. In fact, the left of centre was weakened enough that, for the first time, candidates on the right finished both first and second in a majority of municipalities.

These broad strokes already allude to some of dynamics and signs of reconfiguration of the political system. Over the rest of the article, we will go through the results of 6 candidates with a fine tooth comb. Where possible, we will also glean insights into the current panorama of Portuguese politics and its likely direction of travel.

Note: if this is your first foray into Portuguese politics or if it is not obvious what the political system looks like; what there was to play for in the election; or why the left has performed so poorly, when it rarely dips below 50% of support in parliamentary elections, have a look at our pre-election article for a brief outline of all the things you (didn’t know you) wanted to know about presidential politics in Portugal.

Rebelo de Sousa (PSD-EPP)

To say that Rebelo de Sousa, the centre-right incumbent, ran a formal political campaign may be an overstatement. The operation was bare bones and had—by choice—the tiniest of budgets. There were no political ads or signs. He refused to use his allocated slot of TV/radio airtime, which was unprecedented for a serious candidate. He treated most debates as a palate cleanser between tasks of any consequence.

Overall, this lack of effort reflected one key political fact: that the election was little more than a formality. Rebelo de Sousa was widely expected to win and to do so comfortably. He is an exceedingly popular president with a record even his opponents concede is good. It was guaranteed he would once again have the support of PSD (a party whose membership he only cancelled to avoid the optics of partisanship as he became president) and its companion, centre-right Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS-PP, EPP).

Still, in this election Rebelo de Sousa had to contend with the crowding of the field right of centre, which siphoned off some of the vote he enjoyed in 2016. Comparing the vote distribution in the two elections, it is clear the incumbent lost ground almost exclusively in core centre-right constituencies. Across most of the country, he improved—with particularly sizeable gains in the traditionally left-wing region of Alentejo. In that region, he improved the most in municipalities where the centre-right was weakest in the 2019 parliamentary elections. Conversely, he grew the least where his right-wing opponent André Ventura was strongest. This dynamic is replicated throughout the country. It indicates the centre-right did not reconduct Rebelo de Sousa on its own.

The missing piece of the puzzle is the centre-left. In an unusual move, the prime-minister and several senior members of the cadre of PS—the ruling centre-left party—tacitly endorsed the incumbent. There was also to be no candidate put forth by the party. By both removing itself from the running and backing the candidate, PS sealed Rebelo de Sousa’s resounding victory.

At the municipality level, there is a strong correlation between the size of Rebelo de Sousa’s increase in vote share compared to 2016 and the regions where support for PS in the 2019 parliamentary elections was greater. This suggests a strong realignment of PS voters who, as the largest voting block, are expected to make up the bulk of voters who switched in support of the president. It was likely they who made up the shortfall of votes lost to the right and boosted Rebelo de Sousa’s overall result. Peculiar as this may sound, the centre-left turned out to elect the centre-right.

Key takeaways:

  • Rebelo de Sousa’s victory was overwhelming—he increased both his vote share and absolute number of votes.
  • The tactical support the ruling centre-left PS gave to the re-elected president bolstered Rebelo de Sousa’s political legitimacy. He now holds a stronger mandate.
  • Rebelo de Sousa has been accused of walking in lockstep with the government. That relationship is likely to change, with the president expected to take on a more activist role during his second and final term as a president. PS may have avoided a bruising defeat in the short term, but empowered a future foe.
  • Over the first term, Rebelo de Sousa made discreet moves to strengthen the parties right of centre. He is expected to yield more influence over the trajectories of those parties in the term to come.

Ana Gomes (PS-S&D)

Ana Gomes took second place. She also set a record—at 13% of the vote, she is the woman who received the highest share of the vote in any presidential election. The previous record was held by Marisa Matias, who earned 10% in the 2016 elections.

Gomes’ candidacy was clearly spurred by the discomfort around the (never explicit) endorsement of Rebelo de Sousa. That is, the ruling centre-left PS decided not to enter a candidate of its own, but instead play a nebulous game of support for the centre-right incumbent. As such, PS found itself once again in the unusual situation of being the party in government, consistently polling first, and throwing its collective political weight behind … no candidate. In 2016, this was motivated by two concurrent candidacies; this time around, to avoid a humiliating outcome.

There was a gap in political representation left of centre, and this is what Gomes intended to address. However, despite the candidate’s political heft (Gomes is a career diplomat and served two terms as an MEP), she ran an inconsistent campaign. The bright spot for Gomes was the modern left-wing vision for the presidency she put forth, concerned with themes like climate change and political and economic corruption. Still, she was marred by missteps, with a low point perhaps in a head-to-head debate with Rebelo de Sousa, where the candidate crossed deep into populist territory.

In the end, not even tactical voting to prevent André Ventura from finishing second was enough to prevent a 48 point difference between her and Rebelo de Sousa—the second highest ever. It was not even enough to ensure a consistent second place. Instead, Ventura was the second most voted candidate across most of the country. Gomes, however, had a relatively strong showing around Porto, which afforded the socialist just enough votes to put her over the edge.

Key takeaways:

  • 13% is the lowest vote share for the top centre-left candidate in all presidential elections.
  • There is a dramatic drop from the vote share in 2016—when there were two (centre-left) candidates aligned with PS—to that of Ana Gomes. This clearly shows her inability to attract most of the PS electorate, which voted for Rebelo de Sousa.
  • Gomes may have fared poorly in this election, but she has carved a stronger role within PS (and, arguably, everywhere left of centre). She is already yielding this power in endorsing a potential successor to the prime-minister.

André Ventura (Chega-ID)

The right-wing politician should be pleased. With no contest as to who would be the winner, election coverage was set to revolve around other themes. Ventura gleefully obliged and took it upon himself to fill the airwaves. He inserted himself in controversies on a regular basis. He lobbed abuse at his opponents, ethnic minorities, and other choice targets. Perhaps most successfully, he decided on the arbitrary goal of finishing in second place—which came to be a defining metric in the election.

Overall, Ventura’s campaign was fuelled on outrage—by either fostering outrage or capitalising on outrage. Readers may recognise this stance from the right-wing Chega (ID), which is not surprising, as André Ventura and Chega are one and the same. Ventura’s policy positions—copied verbatim from the populist playbook as Margaret Canovan defined it, with its antielitist ethos and derision of the perceived establishment—addressed very little of the remit of the presidency. This was by design. This candidacy was foremost a platform for the coming elections, as well as an attempt to ensure a seat at the political table. On the 24th of January he brought his own chair.

Key takeaways:

  • With 12% of the vote, Ventura is now firmly in the league of mid-sized political personalities.
  • Disaffected suburban voters elected one Chega MP in 2019. The vote shares across the country suggests that this coalition has broadened.
  • A one man party is expected to do best when only he is on the ballot. Chega is likely to fall short of this result in the local elections taking place later this year, where the spotlight will also be on politically inexperienced candidates.
  • Ventura’s rise compared to Chega was lowest in the region of Porto (where Vitorino Silva was a strong protest vote). It was strongest across Alentejo. Overall, Ventura seems to have disrupted the dynamic of the protest vote, which we will revisit below
  • The centre-right PSD and CDS-PP should heed this warning. Breaking the cordon sanitaire around Chega may have been useful in the short term, but it is risking—to the detriment of PSD and CDS-PP—promoting the party to the role of kingmaker.

João Ferreira (CDU-GUE/NGL|G/EFA)

The communists in Portugal have been in slow but steady decline for the several election cycles. The younger, socially liberal, left-wing vote has largely flocked to the main left-wing alternative, Bloco de Esquerda (BE, GUE/NGL). The left-wing, socially conservative voter which made the southern areas of Alentejo region a communist stronghold seems to be a dying breed. The party would certainly benefit from an infusion of energy.

In that sense, the choice of João Ferreira to represent the self-described communist  Coligação Democrática Unitária (CDU, GUE/NGL|G/EFA) was likely strategic. The young politician was the CDU lead candidate in the European elections in both 2014 and 2019—and successfully elected as an MEP on both occasions. He was also a candidate in two Lisbon local authority elections where he is still a councillor. All in all, he is a candidate with an existing and decent public profile. He also ran a solid and sober albeit a little lackluster campaign where he hit the major notes of what would be expected from a left-wing president.

It should concern the communists Ferreira did not go beyond a measly four per cent of the vote, even as they threw more resources at this election than anyone else, by far. CDU budgeted a little under half a million euros, which is an amount roughly equal to the budget of all other candidates combined. It should concern the communist particularly that Ferreira did not meaningfully improve on the poor result of their 2016 candidate, Edgar Silva. The latter was virtually unknown, while Ferreira is one of the communist party’s crown jewels and a serious contender to take over leadership of the party.

Key takeaways:

  • The CDU electorate did not turn out in force for João Ferreira, as it had not turned out for Edgar Silva in 2016. The strong mobilisation that CDU has relied on over the years may be a thing of the past.
  • Comparing 2021 to 2016 gives us a largely grey map, which indicates little to no variation in vote share. The two places where there have been changes are Madeira—where CDU was largely wiped out—and Alentejo. The party’s grip over this traditional stronghold appears to be eroding further.
  • André Ventura, as a proxy for Chega, was able to make considerable inroads in Alentejo. It is not likely that he drew meaningfully from the core CDU electorate but rather that he served as a protest vote. This is a painful development for CDU and its electoral chances, as the coalition has traditionally been the conduit for the disaffected.

Marisa Matias (BE-GUE/NGL)

Matias is one of the returning candidates from the 2016 election—where she performed well in a crowded field of candidates left of centre. However, in this election cycle, she failed to make a mark.

On the one hand, Matias ran a low-energy campaign. Her platform was wooly. She performed poorly in head-to-head debates. It also certainly did not help that André Ventura’s attacks on the candidate were relentless. On the other hand, the party is going through a difficult period, as the tussles with the ruling centre-left PS may be taking a toll. Arguably, the party is still reeling from its participation in the geringonça.

Still, the greatest pitfall for Matias is that there was no clear differentiation between her candidacy and Ana Gomes’—and the latter was far more successful in mobilising support.

Key takeaways:

  • A vote share of four per cent for Matias is a yellow card for the left-wing BE. With local elections to be held later this year, this may prompt the party to reconsider how it engages with the ruling centre-left PS.
  • Comparing 2021 to 2016 shows deep losses across the country. To some extent, this was inevitable. However, if anyone was expecting party loyalty from BE supporters, the depth of the loss should prompt them to think again.

Tiago Mayan (IL-RE)

This was Mayan’s first foray into national politics and it showed. The founding member of the liberal Iniciativa Liberal (IL, RE) struggled to go head-to-head with experienced political operators. Curiously, he was best when pushing back against André Ventura with a critique from the right.

Mayan did not go over a modest three per cent of the vote. This compares poorly with the rise of Ventura’s Chega—a party which is as young as IL. However, Mayan and his party should be pleased with this participation ribbon. In the election, the centre-right CDS-PP—who supported the incumbent—was barely mentioned at all. CDS-PP’s usual place as the meaningful political force most right of centre or alternative to the mainstream centre-right PSD was shared between IL for more liberal right and Chega for the more authoritarian right. This is the road towards political legitimacy for Mayan.

Key takeaways:

  • Mayan’s vote share was modest, as was the increase over his party’s result in the 2019 parliamentary election.
  • The vote is largely concentrated in the most populous, urban areas. If the pattern holds, IL is improving most in the largest electoral districts, which is where smaller parties have the best chance at electing MPs.
  • CDS-PP should be concerned. With Chega hoovering suburban and rural votes and IL competing for the educated, middle class urban vote—the area around Lisbon is usually one where CDS-PP has a strong showing—the party is teetering on political oblivion.

* * *

The presidential election is a stark reminder that the centre in Portuguese politics is alive and well. The poor performance on the left will concern CDU and BE, as their collective base signalled it will not be corralled into blind partisan support. The changing landscape to the right of centre should serve as a warning for the mainstream right. The two new forces on the right addressed a political vacuum.

Still, different elections follow different dynamics. Both parties and voters make different and strategic choices on presidential, parliamentary and local elections. The local elections coming later this year will undoubtedly paint a somewhat different picture. However, the results in the presidentials do provide good indication of the general direction of travel. Particularly on the right, they signal we have crossed the rubicon—Ventura’s Chega and Mayan’s IL are fast becoming part of the political fabric. This realisation has already prompted PSD and CDS-PP to change tack and vow to enter the next election in coalition, but the damage is done. Time will tell to what extent the political paradigm will shift.