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Portuguese Snap Elections and the Likely End of the Geringonça: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

On Thursday night the Portuguese President formally announced the dissolution of parliament and a snap election for the end of next January. The announcement puts an end to a volatile week in Portuguese politics, following the defeat of the budget for 2022. However, it also plunges the country into uncertainty—with a political crisis looming on the horizon.

Overall, this is an outcome unwanted by all those involved. Rather, it is the consequence of a string of failed bluffs and political (mis)calculations that put an end to the marriage of convenience that afforded Portugal the six years of political stability—the second longest government in the country’s democratic history. That arrangement, which brought together all four parties left of centre for the first time, is most likely now over.

At face value, it is puzzling that such a political understanding would come to an acrimonious end in the failure to approve what is arguably the most left-leaning budget ever proposed. Still, there is an aura of inevitability to the demise of the geringonça, the coalition government.

Death by a thousand cuts

The geringonça was forged in the opposition to gruelling Troika imposed austerity measures following the financial crisis bailouts. The centre-right Partido Social Democrata (PSD-EPP) government which ruled over most that period was weakened in the 2015 election, attracting a plurality—but not the majority—of votes. This opened the door for an unprecedented alliance of parties left of centre: the larger, centre-left Partido Socialista (PS-S&D) entered into a formal confidence and supply agreement with the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda (BE-LEFT), left-wing Partido Comunista Português (PCP-LEFT) and green Partido Ecologista ‘Os Verdes’ (PEV-G/EFA).

This cooperation was widely ridiculed at the time, particularly with the pejorative choice term of geringonça—a contraption, poorly made and expected to break down at the first hurdle. The geringonça, however, proved resilient, sailing through the legislature mostly unscathed.

Nevertheless, under this veneer of pleasant cooperation, the relationships strained. Cracks started to show following the 2019 parliamentary election. PS reaped the rewards of the government solution, riding a wave of optimism that left the party just short of an overall majority. The other partners had lackluster electoral performances—and a strong sense PS had cannibalised a portion of their electorate. The new legislature was also overseen by a different President, whose demands on the geringonça were far more flexible. In particular, the new President dropped the requirement for a formal agreement between all parties. In a dynamic which had not moved from arm’s length negotiations between PS and the other individual partners, the inevitable ambiguity of roles proved to be a poisoned chalice.

The geringonça was no longer driven by a shared core political programme, but became beholden to the priorities of PS. This changed the status quo enough that the centre-left PS increasingly sought partners right of centre to push its legislative programme. Left-wing PCP and left-wing BE only came to the fore for budget negotiations—and even then, their impact became increasingly limited to themes which were also on the larger party’s agenda.

Thus, the failed 2022 budget was the most left-leaning budget drawn, but it was also one that leaned left in priority areas for PS. The budget did not enable BE or PCP to claim either party had meaningfully advanced any portion of their core agenda.

The implicit resentment by the smaller parties had been building for years and, particularly for PCP, was exacerbated by poor electoral results in both the 2017 and 2021 local elections. The PCP electorate has been eroding for decades, but the extent to which that erosion accelerated alarmed the communist party. BE, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the floating vote it shares with PS, with poll after poll suggesting this electorate is gravitating towards the latter. For both parties, this was a pattern not just unpalatable, but untenable.

Polling average of Portugal

Missteps and failed bluffs in budget negotiations

Faced with a scenario where the PS government sought support for legislation outside the geringonça (when that support was not forthcoming), the smaller parties increasingly found their leverage restricted to budget negotiations. Inevitably, legislative priorities of PCP and BE increasingly became part of the negotiating package.

For the failed negotiations, PS did not offer meaningful concessions which the other parties could point to as victories. This further alienated its PCP and BE proposals and drove to the fore calculations of political survival, manifested as a hard line of rhetoric with the promise of voting down the budget.

The negotiations also featured one surprise actor—the President. In what can be read as a gambit (with the benefit of hindsight), the president vowed to dissolve the parliament if the budget was not passed. If PCP and BE’s fiery rhetoric could still conceivably be walked back, the insertion of the President in the negotiation made that harder, for a change of mind would likely be perceived as a volte-face and a defeat.

In the end, the President was true to his word and the dissolution of parliament is confirmed. However, this is an outcome desired by no one. It is instead the consequence of failed gambits, bluffs and missteps, with no one party willing to pay the political price of being the first to blink.

The PS government is dead. Long-live the PS government?

Recent polling suggests a new election is unlikely to bring meaningful change to the parliamentary arithmetic, even accounting for the implosion of the centre-right Centro Democrático Social (CDS PP-EPP) and the addition of a handful of members of parliament for both the right-wing Chega (ID) and liberal Iniciativa Liberal (IL-RE). Even if their overall numbers improved slightly, parties right of centre would still be short of a majority.

Conversely, there should be a majority left of centre, but no clear path for the continuation of the geringonça. PS broke the taboo of looking to the left for support, but a rerun of a left wing majority will likely only take place under a different party leader—one with fresh political capital to spend. The path for PS to hold on to the reins of power will hinge on the party’s ability to defy the odds and reach either an overall majority or negotiate the approval of a minority government with parties to its right. Yet, whether PS achieves any of these goals may depend not only on its own campaign, but also on the fate of the centre-right PSD—the other major player in Portuguese politics.

The centre-right party has been in the midst of a protracted and bitter leadership contest for some time. The snap election has predictably accelerated the process, with a challenger poised to force the leader to call a party conference. Under the leadership of Rui Rio, PSD has consistently trailed PS by a figure in the double digits. This makes him vulnerable to the challenge of Paulo Rangel—a member of the European Parliament and vice-president of the centre-right European People’s Party who has gathered tacit support among influential figures in PSD. Nevertheless, it is unclear whether the potential new leader, who would be positioned himself to the right of Rio, would be able to recapture the slice of the electorate that now supports Chega and IL while retaining the floating vote.

There are many unknowns coming into this sudden election. The country may be on the cusp of a dramatic change of course or political paralysis. Still, one thing is clear—the stage is set for what promises to be an interesting campaign.