An early election for Portugal

Portugal will go to the polls at the end of January, almost two years ahead of schedule, after the government’s annual budget was rejected by parliament last week. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa took a few days to consult the politicians before announcing yesterday that parliament would be dissolved for an election on 30 January.

The government of centre-left prime minister António Costa (who will stay on in a caretaker capacity) has been in office since November 2015, but it has never had a majority in its own right. Costa’s Socialists won only 86 of the 230 seats in the 2015 election, 21 seats behind their centre-right opponents, who are somewhat misleadingly known as the Social Democrats (PSD). The balance of power was held by two far-left parties, the Left Bloc and the CDU (Communists plus Greens).

Contrary to expectations, Costa succeeded in reaching agreement with the far left, who supported him in government for a full term that was generally seen as a success. In 2019 the Socialists got a swing in their favor, becoming the largest party with 36.4% of the vote and 108 seats. They no longer needed both far-left parties to reach a majority – just the abstention of the 19 Left Bloc MPs would be enough – and instead of negotiating a formal agreement with them they relied on support on a case-by-case basis.

That worked fine up until last week, when the Left Bloc and the CDU both voted with the centre-right opposition to reject the budget. Both wanted more welfare spending, but they also evidently made the political calculation that being associated with the government was hurting them electorally and that they needed some product differentiation. Polls show them with maybe a touch over ten per cent of the vote between them, down from the combined 15.8% they had in 2019.

The Socialists, on the other hand, are travelling well, with close to 40% and a double-digit lead on the PSD. The problem is that that’s unlikely to be enough for an absolute majority, and with the bad blood now between them it will be difficult for Costa to lure one of the far-left parties back into his tent if he needs them. Voting, however, is proportional only within multi-member constituencies, so larger parties have an advantage: if he can get the Socialist vote up into the low 40s then a majority might be on the cards.

The position is complicated by the fact that the far right has also been gaining in the polls. Chega, which entered parliament last time with just 1.3% and one seat, is now polling in the high single figures. Liberal Initiative, a liberal party with a rightward lean, also looks like improving on its single seat. Among the PSD’s problems, in addition to being blamed for an early election, will be the question of whether to open the door to co-operation with Chega; its leadership election, to be held next month, may shed some light on that.

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