The reason that the centre-left is doing so well in Portugal
When the election night’s coverage came to a close in the early hours of Monday morning, veteran news anchor José Rodrigues dos Santos wished viewers good night from “a country that looks very different and yet somewhat still the same”.
The paradoxical goodbye could not have been more suitable, summarizing the political situation in Portugal perfectly. At first glance, the Portuguese population seem to have endorsed the geringonça – which roughly translates to the “contraption”. This was the agreement reached between Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist Party (PS), the far-left Communist Party (PCP), and the anti-capitalist Bloco de Esquerda (BE) to ensure a stable government after elections in 2015 resulted in a hung parliament.
Under the PS-led coalition, a more progressive set of fiscal and social policies reversed much of the damage inflicted by the toxic austerity programme that the previous conservative government introduced in 2011.
The electorate appears content with Costa, granting the PS just under 37 per cent of the vote and an extra 20 seats in the Assembleia.The other partners did not fare so well – Bloco retained its seats in parliament, but lost vote share, while the alliance between the PCP and the Portuguese Greens (CDU) saw its vote share plummet to 6.5 per cent.
The success of Portugal’s leftist parties is remarkable at a time of rising right-wing populism is rising in Europe. However, in a prevailing sense, the results are surprisingly mediocre, given that the geringonça has increased the national minimum wage, overseen a general fall in unemployment and led an economic recovery in which Portugal’s GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2018.
The election result was also skewed by a never-seen-before 45.5 per cent abstention rate; this means that nearly more people decided not to vote rather than support the parties that have, albeit marginally, improved their quality of life.
The more significant news, perhaps, is the collection of new parties that have gained seats in parliament for the first time, including the animal rights party PAN and André Ventura’s Chega – the first avowedly fascist party to enter the parliament arena since the Carnation Revolution of 1974.
In his victory speech, Costa extended a hand to the People, Animals, Nature party, as well as Livre, an eco-socialist, pro-EU party, which is also the first in Portugal to be led by a black woman, Joacine Katar Moreira. These two relatively new parties could alter the balance of forces within the geringonça.
The PS cannot govern alone, but with enough cool and political wit it could make itself a minority government that keeps the smaller satellite parties happy, and therefore willing to help it pass its political and economic program.
Which brings us back to a Portugal that is the same as it always was and yet completely different. Because while it is clear that for enough Portuguese voters the political status quo is no longer what they want, it is simultaneously true that no matter what the upcoming coalition government looks like, a second geringonça would keep PS’s neoliberal tendencies in check, but also soften the more radical policies of its far-left partners, refining it’s centre-left status and appeal to the general public
Only time will tell if this complex parliamentary dance is precisely what the Portuguese people demanded as an alternative to the exhausted, and rather politically dull, two-party hegemony of the PS and PSD, or if, in the end, there are too many cooks in the kitchen.
One thing is for certain. The geringonça that followed years of hard and exhausting austerity measures delivered many of the things the Portuguese people had directly asked for, and helped restore faith in the country’s political system after a series of short-lived governmental failures.
But if the left, and the PS in specific, wants to take advantage of the current political climate, and continue to prevent the rise of right-wing populism, it must do more, and be bolder in its actions. Otherwise, as has happened in Greece, the mood might quickly turn sour.