Portuguese Elections: The Left at a Crossroads

Socialist Party (PS) achieved absolute majority, the left had to face significant defeat.

Whereas the Socialist Party achieved its second absolute majority in its history (41.5%, 119 out of 230 seats), both Bloco de Esquerda (‘Left Bloc’ or ‘Bloco’) and the Communist Party (PCP) lost significantly (PCP half of its parliamentary seats, Bloco lost 6 out of 12). The right emerged strengthened from the elections.

To understand the outcome of the elections it is key to understand the specific time and circumstances under which the ballot was held. The disproportion in the balance of forces in the current Parliament requires to correct a major misunderstanding: Even though the Portuguese far right (Chega!, which means ‘Enough!’) emerged from the elections as third political force and an ultra-liberal party (Iniciativa Liberal, IL) considerably increased its representation in the Parliament, the right failed to attain the anticipated (and feared) rise. All in all, the result of both parties is similar to the best results of the conservative Christian party (CDS-PP), which has capitulated before the current elections and is no longer represented in Parliament. However, one must admit that the symbolic weight of the results is considerable, and that this result for the right was only possible due to the resounding defeat of the radical left.

The time of the electoral ballot

The early elections, which were not wanted by the left, are the result of two important events: firstly, the refusal to approve the state budget. In the case of Bloco, this refusal is consistent with its position vis-à-vis the vote of the previous budget, which had been approved only by the Socialist Party in a minority government; and the abstention of the Communist Party. Secondly, the dissolution of the Parliament by the President of the Republic when faced with the government’s outright refusal to include any of the amendments put forward by the left at the national budget’s negotiating table. The governing Socialist Party had already signaled their desire for a majority that would allow them to eliminate the political influence of the parties on their left. Faced with a decline in popularity in late 2021, it opted for a “now or never” strategy and inserted points in the budget knowing that the left could not accept it. Thus, the PS took advantage of the left parties’ political stance and making it virtually impossible for them to support the state budget. In order to maximize its votes, the Socialist Party then laid all the blame on the left. In the end, this perilous strategy proved successful for the PS.

The circumstance of the elections

The elections took place in a context relatively favourable to the government: low unemployment rates, a growing economy, and an overall good assessment of its response to the pandemic. In particular, Prime Minister António Costa (PS) continued to enjoy favourable opinion rates despite some major episodes of personal and public discredit of several government members. The government’s popularity was potentially fostered by a media coverage generating the illusion of a completely instable political situation for which the left parties were blamed.

The announcement of the snap election and the beginning of the campaign accentuated the call for an absolute majority by Costa, albeit inconsistent with his previous political practices and statements, and, above all, with the polls, which progressively ruled out the possibility of such a majority. On the contrary, all polls increasingly indicated a decline in voters for the Socialist Party as well as the parties on its left being continuously penalised. The narrative of a potential electoral tie between the Socialists and the centre-right party was gaining ground, interfering in the parties’ campaign and affecting the incumbent candidates. In contrast to the possibility of a full majority, all the evidence suggested that the governing party was on a downward curve, in the opposite direction to that of the centre-right, which was even pointed out as a potential winner. The likelihood of a change of government was increasing. Moreover, if the elections were to actually result in a tie, the far right could even find itself in a key position for the formation of a right-wing government.

From a complex narrative to ‘tactical voting’

During the election campaign the left constantly had to justify itself for not having supported the state budget, even though the crisis resulted from the Socialist Party’s course of action, which effectively translated into a blackmail situation against the left. The possible rise of the far right, the ghost of its participation in government were arguments that concealed the inflexibility, the stiffness of those who, at the head of the government, never intended to negotiate: what the left parties had presented to the government could have constituted a minimum platform of understanding, allowing for the strengthening of the National Health System and persevering in the repeal of the Troika measures that had been introduced in the Labour Law. It represented the continuation of a path which the 2015 “Geringonça” (“Contraption”) had initiated and which the Socialist Party itself had advocated in previous government programmes. The left remained open to negotiations — provided they were genuine and effective — both in the talks over the budget and during the electoral campaign. Yet, a considerable share of left voters blamed Bloco and the PCP for seemingly ending cooperation with the PS, which compounded the burden of an election they did not want. Counteracting such a perception required a more complex narrative than the simplistic thesis advertised and sold by the incumbent government. The perception of a possible electoral tie was the final ingredient in the “tactical vote” impulse aiming to keep the right-wingers out of the corridors of power.

Walking against the fear

The 2015 parliamentary agreements, through which Bloco and the PCP restored hope and threw their political weight to the democratic debate in Portugal, were decisive for the left and remain a reference among the progressive electorate: these agreements made it possible to remove the right from power, brought about effective changes in the lives of workers and people, forcing the PS to reshuffle its most right-wing political programme ever presented. The left vote had never mattered so much.

The path built was highly valuable, and it was the result of a balance of forces that imposed on the liberalising Social Democracy a negotiation that, as a rule, is neither wanted nor desired. The future challenges for Bloco lie in reconfiguring its policies for the people, who, despite the election results, remain mobilised and convinced of the worth of those who steadily persisted in their defense and never gave up. Beyond the polling stations, beyond the fear of the right, beyond tactical votes, political urgency remains. Such a situation is not unprecedented for Bloco. It will offer an opportunity to bring the party-movement closer to the needs and demands that are being formed and expressed well outside the parliamentary chessboard.