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Portugal: Polarisation, Fragmentation and Changing Fortunes—Perfect Weather for a Snap Election

The Portuguese will be asked to go to the polls this Sunday for an election they did not want.

The snap election follows the collapse of the centre-left minority government of Partido Socialista (PS-S&D), ostensibly supported by political forces on its left flank: the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda (BE-LEFT), the green Partido Ecologista ‘Os Verdes’ (PEV-G/EFA) and the communist Partido Comunista Português (PCP-LEFT).1PEV and PCP make up the CDU (LEFT|G/EFA) coalition

Forged towards the end of the period of austerity following the bailouts and Troika rule, this was the first time parties left of centre organised in anything resembling a governing coalition. This kludgy arrangement was derided at the time and labelled geringonça—a moniker which the parties took back, as the government endured for the full parliamentary term. The geringonça was officially kept alive after the 2019 election, but its dynamic changed. That election punished the smaller parties while rewarding the centre-left PS, who eschewed a repeat of an arrangement based on written agreements in favour of ad hoc collaboration.

This collaboration did not meaningfully materialise, with PS voting in lockstep with its large centre-right rival Partido Social Democrata (PSD-EPP) far more often than it voted with the other members of the geringonça. Unsurprisingly, this strained the relationship between PS and its purported allies, who continued to see both polling numbers and influence over decision-making erode.

With discontent brewing, the 2022 budget negotiations amounted to a match in a powder keg. On the one hand, PCP and BE overtly attempted to use the budget as an arena where to negotiate the political wins they had failed to secure from PS in the current term. On the other hand, PS chose to take a hard stance against any concessions. This apparent impasse was amplified by a wildcard—the President of Portugal.

The president inserted himself into the debate with a clear ultimatum: if the budget failed to pass, he would dissolve the parliament. Thus, budget negotiations morphed into a game of high stakes poker. The president’s intervention had the opposite effect it likely intended: it made it harder for the parties to change course, at the risk of being punished by its base for what would amount to a volte face. With the balkanisation of positions, no one blinked and the president followed through with precipitating a snap election.

Changing fortunes in the lead up to the election

Clearly, a snap election was not something that concerned PS. The prevailing narrative at the time put the blame for the collapse of the government largely on the shoulders of the other left-wing parties. António Costa, the incumbent Prime Minister, is a charismatic leader, while his centre-right counterpart was widely perceived as a lame duck. In fact, PSD was embroiled in a vitriolic leadership tussle for that very reason. Rui Rio fended off the contest (if barely) and remained the leader of PSD, but his perception remained largely the same.

Buoyed by the struggles of its opponents and favourable polling numbers, PS kicked off the campaign with sights set on an overall majority. The party promoted a narrative of stability, highlighting the shortcomings of its former partners in the geringonça as well as those of PSD. It was a transparent attempt to attract the floating vote that in the previous election had gone to its left and to its right.

It was also a narrative that failed to take hold. As the campaign progressed, PS declined in the polls and was sent into a tailspin—sniping left and right and failing to offer a positive vision for the future of the country. At the same time, Rui Rio shed the lame duck label for one ugly duckling. He became collegial—a surprising presentation for a man whose aura has long been one of austerity, and also one that contrasted sharply with Costa’s—and fared well in key debates.

With Rio’s star rising, the criticism within PSD faded away. For good reason, too: for the first time in six years, PSD was the largest party in two polls. Granted, PS is still likely to garner the most votes, but the comfortable lead it held in December dissipated. Several polls put PS ahead, but PSD in its heels, resting within the margin of error. The right of centre, led by PSD, is dreaming of a return to power.

In the PS corner, an overall majority is no longer an aspiration. The party is intent on hanging on to first place, but is now open to negotiating a government solution with parties to its right or to its left. It is a stance that suggests less of an interest in ideological compatibility than the harsh reality of an uncertain parliamentary arithmetic.

Out with the old, in with the new

2022 could be the year that Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS/PP-EPP) departs from the national parliament for the first time. CDS is one of the original political parties in modern Portuguese democracy—along with PS, PSD, and PCP—but has been on a downward trajectory for some time. Previously a party that sought to represent the core right of the centre electorate and its divisions—Christian democratic, conservative, and classic liberal—its electoral space is being taken over by PSD and the two (almost brand) new political actors on the right side of the hemicycle.

In 2019 three new political parties emerged from new ideological camps that had been left untapped in Portuguese politics: the liberals (Iniciativa Liberal-RE), the radical right (Chega-ID), and the green-left (Livre). The 2019 freshmen parties entered parliament with a single MP each and a vote share of one per cent, but are widely expected to make a splash in this snap election. The parties in question are setting themselves up as potential coalition partners and/or possible kingmakers in a fractured parliament.

On the left, Livre rose from the ashes after a political rift between the party and its (former) MP nearly incinerated their hopes of ever being re-elected. The exposure of the party’s lead candidate in national media and election debates likely contributed to this rebound.

On the right, classical liberal IL has been successful in capturing voters from the mainstream centre-right parties PSD and CDS-PP, vying for a handful of seats that could put them between the fourth and sixth largest parliamentary group. Right-wing Chega has been seizing the more conservative slice of the vote on the right, as well as the disaffected voter and the abstentionists. It has been successful in this effort, paving its way to grow from one MP to stand as the third biggest party in parliament.

Fragmentation, coalitions and kingmakers

Despite these shifts, as the election approaches we seem to be moving towards another classic rumble between the centre-left and centre-right powerhouses. With no overall majority on the horizon, a wide gamut of political arrangements could materialise after the January 30 election.

The natural course in Portuguese politics would suggest one of two outcomes: either a PS minority government or a PSD-CDS coalition government. Now, as a result of the geringonça experiment and the rise of fortunes of 2019’s new arrivals furthering parliamentary fragmentation, there is room for different bargains to be struck—depending on the resulting parliamentary arithmetic.

With a majority of seats on the left, we could see the revival and reinforcement of the geringonça. This would likely take shape as a centre-left PS minority government with a written agreement with other forces left of centre, including the original members (BE, PCP and PEV) and conceivably the animal rights party People-Animals-Nature (PAN-G/EFA) and the green-left Livre—a variation nicknamed ‘eco-geringonça’. 

Alternatively, with a majority on the right, we could see a reproduction of the Azorean regional agreement. That is, a centre-right formal coalition led by PSD with CDS as a minority partner (as has traditionally taken place), but this time with the inclusion of liberal IL. Realistically, polling patterns suggest this is a scenario only made possible with the direct or tacit backing of the right-wing party Chega, a political axiom that the aforementioned parties have previously rejected. To make matters worse, such a coalition could also depend on the involvement of the animal rights party PAN. This could be particularly thorny, given their opposing stance on issues such as continuing the practice of bullfighting, which is hardly compromisable and diametrically opposite from the position of both PSD and CDS.

If these broad coalitions fail, a further option could be a parliamentary deal between the two largest political parties, centre-left PS and centre-right PSD. The parties have floated this possibility and such a grand coalition has precedent—it was implemented 1983 and dubbed the Central Bloc; but such an arrangement was inevitably fragile, collapsing only two years later. Moreover, this is an option hampered by the desire to achieve another left-wing victory or a right-wing comeback, which has been largely defined as first priority in the candidates’ debates.

Overall, this election is taking place in a polarised setting, where political stability will become the token to triumph over the other blocs. Whether that is feasible remains unclear. The margins have tightened and turnout alone may change political fortunes. In a worst-case scenario, a new election may be coming soon to a ballot box near you.

This article was written by Celso Gomes and Guilherme Ferreira Resende