The Portuguese governmental ‘contraption’ has turned out to be surprisingly enduring—so much so that it may face another term.
There is little suspense surrounding Sunday’s legislative elections in Portugal. The Socialist Party (PS), led by António Costa, is expected to return to power after four years of leading a minority government supported by the Left Bloc and the coalition Communist Party—Greens.
The only enigma concerns the size of the Socialists’ victory. Are they going to be rewarded with a clear majority, which will enable the formation of a single-party government, or will they be forced to seek the support of other parties to form a minority government once more?
Opinion polls conducted in recent months suggest Portuguese voters may deprive the PS of that desired majority in Parliament, but by just a few seats. The latest polls indicate a drop in the popularity of the Socialists to a 35.5 per cent share of the vote and a rise in the popularity of the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democratic Party, to 28.9 per cent support.
If this result is reproduced on Sunday, the PS will be disappointed because it will not be able to govern on its own, but this is not necessarily a sign of unpopularity. In truth, Portuguese voters are wary of governments supported by landslide (or absolute) majorities in Parliament. In addition, and as in other European democracies, the fragmentation of the party system has intensified in the last decade.
But perhaps more importantly, voters are also aware that the political stability and rising living standards of the last four years are the result of a joint effort by the four parties of the left. In other words, denying a majority to the Socialists may be a way of ensuring that the innovative government formula agreed four years ago will be re-enacted following Sunday’s elections.
When Costa announced in the autumn of 2015 the formation of his minority government, with its left outriders, few observers believed it would survive its first budget. Expectations were so low the opposition parties described it in derogatory terms as a geringonça (contraption), which would collapse at the first hurdle.
Yet the geringonça proved quite resilient. It overcame resistance from Brussels and Berlin to its attempts to reverse austerity policies, it managed to win approval for four budgets from the European Commission and the National Assembly, it lasted a full parliamentary term and it became a role model for European social-democratic parties to follow. As the prime minister claimed, ‘it’s a contraption, but it works!’.
Congenial timing and luck were important lubricants which ensured the effective working of the geringonça. But the key ingredient was the quirky government format negotiated by the Socialists and the political style it inspired. Crucially, this government was not a classic coalition, yet it went beyond a typical minority government supported by confidence-and-supply agreements with other parties.
The ‘quasi-coalition’ government, led by the PS, enabled all parties involved to keep their specific identities while they participated in policy-making. The Socialists controlled all government posts, negotiated the budgets with the European Commission and claimed the role of the ‘grown-ups in the room’ ensuring that budgetary discipline was kept.
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By contrast, the Left Bloc and the Communist Party—Greens could be simultaneously government and opposition. Thus, they claimed responsibility for the rises in the minimum wage and pensions and for popular measures such as free textbooks for schoolchildren. But they attacked the Socialists with great ferocity when the PS resisted demands to increase teachers’ salaries or for investment in infrastructure and public services.
Behind the scenes, the relationships among the four parties were much closer and quite institutionalised. In fact, they resembled the functioning of classic coalition government, though there were important differences. The supporting parties were deeply involved in the drafting of the annual budget and other key public-policy measures, while not part of the government.
To secure the smooth running of government and, crucially, the approval of four budgets, the (then) minister for parliamentary affairs, Pedro Nuno Santos, met daily with the leaders of three parties. Because there is intense rivalry between the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, Nuno Santos had to meet each separately. He also had to keep an eye on the Socialist benches, as not all MPs were convinced of the wisdom of this governmental arrangement. This institutional network was complemented by regular appearances of the different ministers before the relevant parliamentary committees and by informal meetings between the prime minister and each party leader.
The fluency of the geringonça also demanded a different style of doing politics. This does not rely on heroic leadership (with all the trappings of confrontational and adversarial politics) but depends on the unglamorous practices of dialogue, rhetorical restraint (especially from the party that leads the government), bargaining and consensus-building.
This was a high-maintenance operation which absorbed significant institutional resources and kept the Socialists on their toes. For that reason, the PS is leading a combative electoral campaign, in the hope of avoiding the re-enactment of the geringonça.
But, funnily enough, the polls suggest that it is exactly this result that most voters favour—the Socialists kept in power but on their mettle.