Why did the socialists win so big in Portugal? Maybe because they weren’t expected to.
There are typically two questions foreign correspondents ask Portuguese political scientists on the eve of elections. Why doesn’t Portugal have a significant populist radical right-wing political party? And why has the Socialist Party (PS) survived unscathed the erosion suffered by social-democratic parties nearly everywhere else in Europe?
After Sunday’s election, the first question has lost its point. Chega (‘Enough’) increased its support from 1.3 to 7.2 per cent of the vote and from one to 12 MPs, becoming the third-largest force in parliament after the centre-left PS and the centre-right PSD. Founded in 2019 by a former PSD militant, André Ventura, Chega had already given a clear sign of its potential strength in last year’s presidential election, when its leader won close to 12 per cent.
The social ‘demand’ for such a party has been strong in Portugal for some time. Surveys capturing ‘populist attitudes’—the belief in the existence of a deep division between ‘elites’ and ‘people’ conceived as homogeneous entities, with the former perceived as fundamentally corrupt—have found these to be quite prevalent in Portugal, even in comparison with countries where parties catering to that demand have been established for some time.
Moreover, Chega has managed to attract those voters while partially evading the stigma attached to ‘old’ extreme-right parties, perhaps due to its emergence as a splinter from the PSD rather than a direct offshoot of extremist organisations. Instead, Chega and his leader have themselves profited from the stigmas attached not only to the political class but also to the Roma population, against whom prejudice in Portugal is quite pervasive. Ventura did exceptionally well in 2021 in municipalities where Roma minorities are larger, as well as in contexts where—linked to the size of the Roma population—the share of recipients of social assistance is higher, suggesting the party’s message about ‘welfare dependency’ had at least one target its voters identified.
Ventura’s previous visibility as a football commentator on television and the irresistible attraction for the Portuguese media of the ‘bombastic’ did the rest. Post-electoral surveys will tell us more about current Chega supporters but what we know does not speak of a party disproportionally supported by the economically deprived or by the working class more generally: cultural, rather than economic drivers, seem to have been most consequential.
In contrast, the second question—about the continued success of the Socialist Party—still needs answers. On Sunday, the socialists won close to 42 per cent of the vote, five points up on 2019. This was rather unexpected.
Over the last two months, the gap between the PS and the PSD had continuously narrowed in the polls, to the point of a technical tie just a week before the election. On election night, however, the socialists increased their advantage over the PSD from nine to more than 12 percentage points and obtained an absolute majority in parliament, only the second ever in their history. If it completes its term, a socialist government will have governed the country for about two-thirds of the time during this century.
As always, there are potential short-term and long-term explanations for this outcome. The short-term ones will lead to considerable soul-searching. Was the perceived competitiveness of the election as portrayed by the polls until the preceding week genuine or was it manufactured by potentially faulty methods and/or their amplification by the media? We may never know for sure.
But the foreseeable consequences of that perceived closeness have come to fruition. First, there was increased mobilisation: in a country where turnout had experienced a secular decline, bringing it below the European average, the 2022 elections brought an upswing, the first since 2005—when perhaps not by chance the socialists obtained their previous absolute majority.
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Secondly, there was strategic voting: since 2002, on average close to one in five voters have made their choice in the week before the election and this time the late deciders may have swayed considerably towards the PS, to prevent a right-wing victory. Predictably, this hurt the two main parties to its left: the Left Bloc (which dropped from 9.7 per cent in 2019 to 4.5 per cent this time) and the Communist Party (from 6.5 per cent to 4.4 per cent). Again, only post-election studies will be able to confirm this.
The structural and long-term explanations are perhaps of greater interest. In many European countries, social-democratic parties have experienced dramatic erosion over the last two decades, fostered by the reduction of their core industrial working-class constituency, the rise of an educated middle class and the increased salience of a libertarian-authoritarian axis of political conflict. As Herbert Kitschelt presciently sketched in his 1994 classic, The Transformation of European Social Democracy, this has created complex dilemmas for social-democratic parties about where to position themselves, as well as opportunities for green, new-left and radical-right parties.
Portugal, however, remains semi-detached from this world. Production workers still constitute a disproportionate share of the electorate, even by already-high southern-European standards. Only about 55 per cent of Portugal’s workforce has completed at least secondary education, the lowest level among 31 European countries investigated. The socio-economic dimension of political competition—redistribution and the role of the state—remains the most salient, something that the Great Recession, the eurozone crisis, the bailout of 2011-13 and the associated austerity policies may even have reinforced.
The most significant dilemmas have instead been experienced on the right of the party system. During the prior period of the centre right in government (2011-15), the more neoliberal leadership of Pedro Passos Coelho and the austerity measures imposed by the ‘troika’ (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission) seem to have led voters increasingly to perceive the PSD as too far to the right. The party lost some of its ability to attract older, less educated and poorer voters.
Coelho’s successor, Rui Rio, therefore, spent the last few years attempting to reposition the PSD as moderate and centrist, even ‘social-democratic’ (its official name reflects the climate at the time of its formation in the wake of the 1974 revolution). On the face of it, this seemed wise. As genuine dilemmas usually play out, however, this was almost permanently contested within the party by its more neoliberal wing, while creating external opportunities for competition to the right.
The new Iniciativa Liberal party increased its presence in parliament in these elections from one to eight MPs, on a platform of lower taxes and less state intervention. This, together with the rise of Chega, has resulted in a fragmented right—hence the PSD’s inability to advance electorally in 2022.
Squaring the circle
The future holds other sorts of dilemmas, but this time for the socialists in government (or any other incumbent in the near future). Portugal remains a country with comparatively high inequality in income and (especially) wealth, still reeling from the—highly socially asymmetric—consequences of the pandemic. Its labour force lags in qualifications, productivity is 25 per cent below the EU-27 average (and receding further) and investment in education, research and development and childcare and early education have been stagnant, at best, for at least a decade.
Whether a socialist government burdened by debt (more than 130 per cent of gross domestic product) and low fiscal capacity will be able to square the circle of catering to the immediate social needs of its electoral constituency and, at the same time, invest in the future remains unclear at best, unlikely at worst.