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The impressive victory of Portugal’s Socialistas

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A comeback, and a swansong…

Against all odds, the centre-left Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) achieved an absolute majority in the latest Portuguese legislative elections on 30 January. The result came as a surprise to everyone – including, arguably, Prime Minister António Costa, who days before had abandoned his calls for the result he ended up having.

How did this happen?

In every election, there are multiple factors contributing to the final result. Last week’s legislative elections in Portugal are no different. The first explanation given by many analysts was that, quite simply, the polls had got it wrong yet again. Indeed, just two days before the election, the polls predicted both PS and centre-right PSD to have between 33–35%. That obviously did not end up happening. However, the polls may have contributed to the main reason leading to the result: faced with the possibility of a hung parliament, the Portuguese sought to give a reinforced mandate to the option they most trusted.

Local elections in 2021 also help to explain this sudden mobilisation behind PS. Socialist Fernando Medina, then-Mayor of Lisbon, was widely expected (read: virtually guaranteed) to win. The sense that victory was assured, coupled with a scandal involving a PS politician in a Lisbon district just days before the election, led to a stunning upset, with the centre-right candidate, Carlos Moedas, taking City Hall. Perhaps for that reason, participation was higher than in previous elections, which is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that the country faced an average of 55,000 daily new Covid infections, with over a million people in isolation.

There are several possible additional explanations. Having voted against the state budget, and therefore igniting the political crisis that led to the elections, the parties to the left of PS were destined to suffer a shrinkage of their vote. Still, the severity of that vote loss surprised many. The defection mainly benefited the Socialists, as former voters of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) and the Communist Party wanted to avoid a right-wing government scenario. At the same time, PS attracted many votes from those in the political centre. Many Portuguese who could swing the vote to either the left or the right were spooked by the leader of the centre-right PSD’s tiptoeing around the role that the far-right party, Chega, might have in guaranteeing an eventual right-wing majority in Parliament.

All those factors, each with its own weight, certainly contribute to explaining how PS achieved this majority. That said, they do not in the least take away from the fact that António Costa and the Socialists achieved an outstanding result which is set to make Costa the longest-serving PM in the history of Portuguese democracy. PS has gained votes to their left and their right and has an open road to implementing its policies.

The Socialist triumph is the latest encouraging result of the European Left. The victories of Germany’s SPD and Norway’s Labour Party have inspired some talks of a resurgence, though the dismal results of the Dutch PvdA and the now-chronic difficulties of the Left in France and Central and Eastern Europe may suggest otherwise. The reality is probably somewhere in between, with the Left making a comeback and reclaiming its place in South and Western Europe while trailing in CEE. Nevertheless, the picture is undoubtedly rosier than a couple of years ago.

 And now? The road ahead

While the results have been known for over a week, there are still no official indications as to who may or may not join the government. The prime minister had promised a smaller government in the election run-up. That promise is unlikely to change, although Costa’s pre-election plans regarding government composition may have been called into question by his resounding victory. The Portuguese press, through a mixture of hearsay and deduction, guarantees that all names given as possible successors to Costa’s leadership will hold key positions in the government. Former Lisbon Mayor Medina may join the cabinet, perhaps as finance minister. Pedro Nuno Santos will most likely remain as infrastructure and housing minister, with Mariana Vieira da Silva and Duarte Cordeiro remaining in the government. The latter, having led the campaign, might be rewarded with a ministerial post. Ana Catarina Mendes may also come on board, having previously served as majority whip.

As the prime minister himself said on election night, this historic result places a greater responsibility on the Socialist Party’s shoulders. This will be the Socialists’ third consecutive government and the first of the three where their continued governance will not hinge on agreements with other parties. After years of arduous negotiations, the chance has come for António Costa and the Socialists to define their legacy.

With many young people having voted for the right-leaning Liberals, reforms that further prevent the brain drain of the past years and guarantee that college graduates can fulfil their career ambitions in Portugal should be a top priority. Once in power, the new government will approve its previously rejected state budget and set in motion its agenda for the upcoming years, which includes new increases to the minimum wage and measures to increase affordable housing in Portugal’s main urban centres of Lisbon and Porto. The opportunity to shape the country in accordance with Costa’s vision is further bolstered by the additional €16.6 billion that Portugal stands to receive from the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Facility to spend on structural reforms.

This new mandate is a golden chance to cement Costa’s legacy, but it is not without its pitfalls. Amidst the natural fatigue that six years of party rule can cause in any society, the growth of the far-right puts additional pressure on the Socialists’ shoulders. Underperformance may have severe consequences, not only for the future of the party but for the political life of the country as a whole. Costa will need to harness all his political experience and skill to navigate these treacherous waters and leave both the country and the party better off.

Wherever they are in the world, but especially in the UK, progressives need to learn from their fellows who have had electoral success and are governing nations.

Our Progressives in Power blog and event series gets you up to speed. See the most recent post, on Olaf Schulz’s ‘Respect’ agenda here.