The Phantom Pain: The Outcome of the Portuguese National Elections

Social democrats and left parties reach 61% of the mandates at the National Assembly; the right attains a smashing defeat; three new political forces enter the parliament, including the far-right; lowest turnout ever (54.5% and minus 300,000 votes)

As we write, a short statement from the Socialist Party (PS) puts an end to the possibility of a parliamentary signed agreement with the left Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc, BE), a so-called Geringonça 2.0.
This agreement would respond to the new political landscape that came out of the national elections of October the 6th, which PS won, reinforcing its parliamentary group by 20 MPs though failing the goal of a full majority. Contrarily to 2015, social democrats have now a clear mandate to form a minority government. On the left, while the electoral alliance between the Communist Party (PCP) and the Greens (PEV), the CDU coalition (Unitary Democratic Coalition), confirms a significant drop (minus 115,000 votes and 5 parliamentary seats), BE is able to maintain its 19 MPs although loosing votes (about 57,000) and a new social democrat party, LIVRE, enters the parliament (one MP).

The traditional parliamentary right that ruled during the Troika’s years and had ran in coalition in the 2015, had a devastating defeat: the liberal party, PSD, loses 12 MPs and conservatives of CDS have now only five MPs. A clear political reconfiguration of the Portuguese right is taking place, reflected in the election of one ultraliberal MP (Iniciativa Liberal, IL) and the worrying election of the first far-right MP (by Chega) in 45 years of democracy.
As polls predicted, the animalist party (PAN) considerably increased its turnout and seats (from one to four MPs) confirming that this depoliticized force, fuelled by the uncritical bounteousness of the media, is here to stay.

PAN and the escalade of Green populism

Confirming a rising trend, already envisioned with the election of its first MEP in May, PAN, an animalist party founded in 2009 that had entered the National Assembly in 2015, is one of the winners (four MPs, 3.3%). The doubling in the number of votes was achieved in the context of a campaign where its political inconsistency was never denounced. Claiming to be a “post-ideological” party, in the ethereal position of being “not left nor right,” PAN sustains the need for decarbonisation, for facing climate emergency and moving apart from an extractivist economy. Simultaneously, PAN refuses nationalization strategic sectors, such as energy, advocating for the maintenance of capitalist modes of production and being silent on public policies such as health, education or the right to housing. Riding the populist intent of pleasing everybody, PAN counted on the complicity of the media throughout debates, which remained within the boundaries of PAN’s agenda, without dissecting its programmatic incoherence.
PAN is probably the party that has ever changed programmatic measures during an electoral campaign, clear profiting the populist crusade and further helped by the distraction and benevolence of political opponents and pundits. Without any ideas regarding Welfare State and public policies, PAN represents the rise of a Green populism of ecological facade and hidden agenda that collects the support of a fairly young electorate.

The right and the political void it created

Still associated with the Troika memorandum and austerity, liberal PSD embodies the discrediting of the neoliberal project. The successes of the past government headed by the PS, whose rhetoric is based on the dual purpose of income and rights recovery and deficit control, created serious difficulties for the right. Throughout the campaign the emergence of some ‘cases’, more of journalistic rather than political interest, coupled with some overconfident attitude of the socialists, accounted for a much smaller electoral defeat of PSD than previously anticipated (according to the polls, the gap between PS and PSD started to be of 20 percentage points but closed down to less than nine). This did not prevent the second best voted party – a historic protagonist of the “democratic interchange” that has reduced the struggle for power in Portugal between these two parties –, to obtain one of its worst results (27.9%). Although the party leader tried to present the defeat as “much better than expected”, the fight for leadership is now open.
Conservatives (CDS-PP) lost 13 MPs being now reduced to a parliamentary group of five. The leader announced her resignation in the electoral evening.

The outcome of this crisis within the two traditional right-wing parties is the rise of two new political forces, with the election of one MP each: IL, with its ultraliberal agenda to “wipe out Socialism in Portugal”, and Chega, with its openly populist and far-right discourse based on anti-corruption, anti-ciganism and racist stances.

The disputes for leadership within PSD and CDS – given the bad results – are expected to be profoundly marked by the rise of these two new parties. It shall be stressed that both IL and Chega MPs come from PSD ranks (a former president of the National Authority for Tourism and a former candidate to Local elections, respectively).

Geringonça 2.0 – it takes two to tango

In the aftermath of the 2015 National Elections, refusal to participate in a government solution that could impede the right from governing would have had heavy political consequences for the left, in a country ravaged by Troika’s austerity, and where the biggest protests, since the Carnation Revolution, had taken place. In 2019, discarded any hypothesis for a right victory, the continuity or revisitation of a similar political formula posed different challenges to all the parties involved in what became known as Geringonça (Contraption) – a governmental solution based on unilaterally signed agreements between Socialists and BE, PCP and PEV.

During the campaign, Prime Minister António Costa praised Geringonça and the achieved results in terms of income and rights recovery always in strict compliance with the European treaties. Never daring to openly call for an absolute majority, Costa and other prominent PS leaders did not fail to attack, sometimes rather violently, their former partners.
On the other hand, both the BE and the CDU emphasized that such policies were only possible due to the leverage imposed by the left, highlighting the danger that a full majority would present to this path of economic and social progress. As BE party leader Catarina Martins bluntly stated in the television debate with António Costa, “the political context is different, and our goal is to move forward and deeper in policies”.

In the electoral evening, Costa stated that the results were a clear reflection of the will of the Portuguese people for a new Geringonça. He extended the invitation for negotiations to PAN and LIVRE, but they were promptly refused by all parties but Bloco. A first meeting between Bloco and PS took place, with Bloco presenting a proposal that included, among others, an increase in public investment and the total elimination of the labour law measures imposed by the Troika. Yet, after a meeting between PS and employers’ organizations a couple of days later, Costa puts an end to further negotiations with Bloco.

It is visible and notorious that the recent past and its heritage will be, from now on, a subject of political dispute. Socialists insist on the idea that agreements with the left remain not only possible but desirable, pretending to ignore the political inconsistency of casuistic agreements and trying to hide the opportunism of the (non) negotiations from the public opinion. Throughout the new term, in a ten-party parliament and with a slim majority, the path PS will follow is expected to be a set of circumstantial approaches to the other political forces, on its left or on its right, always waving the threat of political instability at each single difficulty.

Geringonça, reported dead by the left and claimed alive by PS, will be a sort of phantom pain in this new balance of forces: it will be felt, it will frequent the narratives and it will populate the disputes. Its non-existence will be present in a political cycle that will follow a totally different course from the past four years.

Inside – as well as outside – the parliament, the Portuguese left faces clear challenges in times that require determination and strategy.