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Portugal: How the Left Won and Lost a Parliamentary Election

On January 30th the Portuguese went to the polls to vote in an election they did not want, but they made sure their voice was heard.

Conducting an election during a pandemic that is extending into its third year is not an enviable task. The organisational apparatus rose to the occasion, being hamstrung only by the government’s early inaction (and late fudge) on enabling voters infected or under quarantine due to exposure to COVID-19. Perhaps more surprisingly, the voters rose to the occasion as well.

The numbers of electors that cast a ballot shot up by 300,000 compared to the same exercise in 2019. Turnout was recorded at 58%, three and a half percentage points above the 2019 election and even a percentage point above 2015.

This increase is particularly important for a symbolic reason—it is only the third time turnout numbers have bucked the downward trajectory. It was also the largest rise ever recorded. That it took place during the pandemic and against a relatively stable political background is remarkable.

With all votes finally counted, the new parliament has taken shape. It is a different shape from ever before, with conspicuous absences and impressive gains, putting on display who won, who lost, and who lives to fight another day.

PS in a state of grace

The ruling centre-left Partido Socialista (PS-S&D) spent the months that led up to the election with a stable lead over its centre-right rival Partido Social Democrata (PSD-EPP). However, in the fortnight before the vote, polling numbers started to tighten; two polls even put PSD at the top for the first time in six years.

Polling may have suggested a close race, but the results were far from close. PS won, not by four points, but rather with a 12 point lead.

The PS victory was overwhelming. The party won the plurality in all but one of the 20 electoral districts in the country. This was an excellent result for PS in any way conceivable. From a historical perspective, 42% is the fourth largest vote share the party has ever earned.

Above all, this is only the second time PS is being afforded an overall majority. With 119 seats secured out of a parliament of 230, PS holds a slim majority, but an outright majority nonetheless.

This means a goodbye to the theme that dominated the campaign—government coalitions. For the next four years, PS will govern alone.

Vote concentration on the left

The pattern of government in Portugal can be broadly described as one of rotation between centre-left PS and centre-right PSD, depending on whether the times favoured governments on the left or on the right.

Traditionally, the left and right-wing blocks grew or dwindled as a whole; i.e. a good result for PS would mean an improvement in the electoral fortunes for the parties to its left. That pattern was broken on Sunday.

The election was bruising for most of the left half of parliament. Left-wing Bloco de Esquerda (BE-LEFT) and the CDU coalition (LEFT|G/EFA)1The CDU coalition is composed of the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP-LEFT) and Ecologist Party “The Greens” (PEV-G/EFA) had results which were a 20 year low and a record low. Partido Ecologista ‘Os Verdes’, the green party in CDU, failed to elect any member of parliament. The party had consistently elected at least one MP since it first contested elections in 1983.

Among the more recent parties, the animal rights party Pessoas-Animais-Natureza (PAN-G/EFA) also had a punishing result, with its parliamentary group cut down from four MPs to a single one—and came dangerously close to being pushed out altogether.

Only the green-left party Livre (G/EFA) will have some reason to celebrate. The party was staring into an electoral abyss after an ugly and public break with the only MP it elected in 2019. With the help of media exposure and a veteran politician (Rui Tavares, a former member of the European Parliament), Livre was able to effectively repeat its 2019 result, electing an MP in the Lisbon electoral district.

The poor result of all these parties is not due to a rise of the right; its vote was hollowed out from the left, by PS. Given the snap election was called because the 2022 budget put forth by PS failed at the first hurdle, at first glance it appears electors penalised the parties who voted it down.

However, it is likely that a subset of these vote transfers does not reflect a change of political orientation. Instead, they would be attributed to tactical voting for PS by electors startled by the possibility of a PSD plurality. Amongst the damage, this should be a silver lining for left-wing parties—it is the electorate they may easily claw back.

Vote fragmentation on the right

On the other side of the political aisle, the Portuguese right went through one of the bulkiest transformations in its history.

The headline news is perhaps the fading of Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular (CDS/PP-EPP). After 47 years of political representation, including participation in 17 general elections and six governments, CDS-PP departed from the national parliament. The party had long struggled with its core identity. Ultimately, this was exploited by its right-of-centre competitors, who attracted different slices of its electorate.

Two successful competitors are the right-wing Chega (ID) and the liberal Iniciativa Liberal (IL-RE). The two rookies first gained representation in 2019 with a single MP each. On Sunday, they established themselves as the third and fourth biggest parliamentary groups. Over the last 30 years, these were spots occupied by CDS-PP and the left-wing forces. The key story of the night may have been the PS victory, but this political affirmation should not go unnoticed. Chega and IL are here to stay.

Chega’s rise is particularly impressive, growing from one to 12 MPs—more than BE and PCP combined. In a prelude of what is to come, the right-wing party’s founder vowed to end the ‘soft right-wing opposition’. This reads like a warring briefing aimed at PSD. The tone in parliament will change.

Centre-right PSD entered this election after several years of aimless internal strife between a liberal-conservative and a centrist bloc2Two factions have long been at war within PSD: a publicly discredited liberal-conservative bloc loyal to former Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s legacy and the more pragmatic centre represented by incumbent Rui Rio. This war is alive and well. Its latest manifestation was a leadership challenge late last year by one of Passos Coelho’s allies. Rui Rio prevailed, but the margin of victory was slim.. Clearly, the party’s long struggle for a (coherent) raison d’être fell short. PSD campaigned to capture the political centre, while keeping an ambiguous distance from the radical right. For this, the party was punished. It lost three MPs compared to 2019. It also left a power vacuum on the right—one which the aforementioned rising stars were all too keen to exploit.

In the end, PSD was unable to unite behind a common goal for its own future, much less rally a highly splintered right sphere.


As it happens in every election, amongst the losers heads have started to roll. The centre-right PSD leader, Rui Rio, has sidestepped a formal resignation, opting instead to call for an election he will not contest.

Whoever takes the reins faces a hard job in the opposition, as PS will control the levers of power for the next four years. For the country, the return to single party majority governments is perhaps a step back; 2019 infused new blood into parliament and suggested the dawn of a new era where government required coalitions and compromise. Perhaps in four more years.

This article was written by Celso Gomes and Guilherme Ferreira Resende. The article was updated on February 9th as the final results were published.