Election preview: Portugal

Portugal goes to the polls on Sunday for an election that seems to have attracted relatively little international attention. Compared to four years ago, when there was much angst about the under-performing Mediterranean economies, the focus of interest in the European Union has shifted northwards.

For once, however, this looks like a good news story for the centre-left. Prime minister António Costa, who took office in slightly controversial circumstances following the 2015 election, looks set for a fairly comfortable victory. His Socialist Party, which won 32.3% of the vote last time, is on track to increase that by about five points.

Voting is proportional (D’Hondt) only within each of 22 multi-member constituencies of widely varying sizes (the same system as in neighboring Spain), not nationwide, so the major parties have an inbuilt advantage. Even so, Costa is most unlikely to win a majority outright; like last time, he will depend upon the votes of parties further left.

In 2015 the Socialists won 86 of the 230 seats. The Left Block of left-wing radicals and populists won 19 (from 10.2% of the vote) and the Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU) – mostly traditional Communists, but also incorporating the Greens – won 17 (from 8.3%).

This was the controversial part. Costa had appeared unwilling to co-operate with the far left, so most observers (including me) were expecting a centre-right minority government. Instead, Socialist members voted to open negotiations with the two left parties, and they succeeded in reaching agreement.

The Left Bloc and the CDU both agreed to support a Socialist government, without taking ministerial positions in it but having input into policy. Then-president Aníbal Cavaco Silva refused to take the agreement at face value until it had demonstrated its support in parliament, but once it did so he accepted the resignation of centre-right leader Pedro Passos Coelho and appointed Costa to form a government.

It seems to have proceeded quite smoothly. Portugal’s economic recovery, already in progress at the time, has continued, and the government has been stable (if not scandal-free) for a full term. Voters showed their approval in the European parliament election earlier this year, when the Socialists scored 33.4% and the three pro-government parties a total of 50.1%.

If the polls are right, that total will climb on Sunday into the mid-50s – plus another 4% or so for the animal rights party People-Animals-Nature (1.4% and one seat last time), which will presumably support the centre-left if needed. While Costa will still need allies, he will have more choices.

On the other side are two centre-right parties: the confusingly-named Social Democrats, under new leader Rui Rio, with 89 seats and the People’s Party with 18. In 2015 they ran in most provinces as a single ticket, “Portugal Ahead”, winning a total of 38.7% of the vote.

The polls suggest that will fall to the low 30s, although the trend during the campaign is upwards. Unlike in Spain, there is no sign of any substantial amount of centre-right support migrating to the far right. Two small far-right tickets scored just 2% between them in the European parliament election, and are unlikely to do any better this time.

Democracy is on the retreat in some places, but in others it is more than holding its own. Portugal, which had almost no experience of democracy prior to the revolution of 1974, is one of its real success stories.

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