Election preview: Portugal

In the first big election of 2022, Portugal goes to the polls on Sunday, almost two years early. Parliament was dissolved after the Socialist government of prime minister António Costa was defeated on its budget last October.

My report at the time outlines the background. Briefly, the story starts two elections back, in 2015, when Costa was able to form government with the support of two far-left parties, the Left Bloc (populists) and the CDU (Communists + Greens). That government served a full term, after which the Socialists gained a swing in their favor and were close to a majority in their own right, with 108 seats out of 230.

So Costa formed a minority government, depending on ad hoc support from the far left. After two years the latter decided that this wasn’t working for them, and voted with the centre-right opposition to force an early election. But it’s not at all clear that this will change anything much.

In the 2019 election the Socialists had a break of 8.5 percentage points on their main rival, the PSD (it stands for Social Democrats, but they’re a centre-right party), 36.3% to 27.8%. The latest opinion polls show the Socialists almost unchanged; the PSD is up a few points, but mostly at the expense of its junior partner, the Christian Democrats, who had 4.2% last time but now are barely registering.

The Left Bloc and the CDU, who had 15.9% between them last time, have lost ground and are together polling just over 10%. Another two left groups, PAN (animal rights) and Livre (ecologists), are attracting a point or two each. But the far right party, Chega, which had only 1.3% in 2019, has made substantial gains and looks to be getting somewhere in the mid- to high single figures – a bit ahead of the right-liberal party, Liberal Initiative, also starting from 1.3%.

So there appears to be some shift from left to right, but not enough to change the basic arithmetic. Even with momentum favoring the centre-right, the various left-of-centre parties will probably retain a majority in aggregate, but they will need to co-operate somehow if they want to stay in government. The far right may become the third-largest party; while that would be an embarrassment, it would still not deliver it any real power.

Voting is proportional (D’Hondt) within multi-member constituencies rather than across the board, but some of them are quite large (48 seats in Lisbon, 40 in Porto), so although there’s some advantage to the larger parties the overall proportionality tends to be pretty good. Nine parties won seats last time, with three of them (Chega, Liberal Initiative and Livre) taking only one each.

For most of the time that Costa has been in office, the centre-left in Europe has been having a pretty bad run: Portugal has been one of its few bright spots. Now that it’s recovered some ground on the rest of the continent – especially with last September’s victory in Germany – it remains to be seen whether Portugal will again go against the trend.

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