Election preview: Portugal

Portugal goes to the polls tomorrow, with prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho favored to win a second term in office. At the last election, in June 2011, his Social Democrats (which, confusingly, are a centre-right party) won 38.7% of the vote and 108 of the 230 seats in parliament; coalition with the Christian democrats (24 seats) gave him a comfortable majority. This time the two are running together as a single list, called “Portugal Ahead”.

The opposition Socialists are expected to improve on the 28.0% and 74 seats that they won in 2011, but not by enough to win a majority. Opinion polls show them stuck in the low 30s, trailing Portugal Ahead by maybe five or six percentage points. Most of the rest of the vote will go to two further left parties, the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU) and the Left Bloc, which look like at least maintaining their current representation of 16 and eight seats respectively.

So unless the polls are significantly understating the government’s support – which in view of the sort of year the pollsters have been having seems entirely possible – it looks as if neither side will be able to form a majority government, with the far left holding the balance of power.

The Socialists are showing little enthusiasm either for a grand coalition or for teaming up with the far left, so pundits are saying that the most likely outcome is a minority centre-right government that will tacitly rely on the Socialists when needed.

For a country that’s been through the now familiar Mediterranean cycle of financial crisis, bailout and austerity, that would be quite an impressive show of confidence in the current government. At the very least it suggests that the worst of the crisis is over, and that an austerity program, intelligently managed, need not amount to political suicide.

A decade or so ago, centre-left and centre-right had a rough parity in terms of European electoral success. But when the financial crisis hit, voters responded (contrary to most expectations) by swinging to the right: by the middle of 2011 the centre-right was in power in more than  three-quarters of the European Union countries.

Then the pendulum started to swing back, and by last year the centre-left had a majority in its camp. But momentum then stalled, and for the last year or so the movement, if any, has seemed to be more in the right’s favor, with recent victories in Estonia, Britain and Denmark. If Portugal’s Socialists fall short tomorrow, that will be further confirmation of the trend.

In many countries there has also been a surge at the extremes, with populist parties of far left and far right taking advantage of voter disaffection. But there is little sign of that in Portugal; the CDU is very much “old left”, dominated by the Portuguese Communist Party, while the more radical Left Bloc does not seem to have rallied the same enthusiasm as Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos.

Instead the Portuguese seem likely to express their dissatisfaction by staying home. Turnout in 2011 was 58.0%, a record low, and is forecast to go lower still. But one person’s apathy is another person’s contentment.

Voting is D’Hondt proportional in each of 22 constituencies, two of them for voters outside of Portugal. Polls close at 5am Monday, eastern Australian time – try the Electoral Commission website for results.

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