Disharmony on the left could pave the way for a right-wing coalition government.
After months of intransigence and unwillingness to talk—least of all negotiate—with the parties to his left, the Portuguese socialist leader and prime minister, António Costa, is suddenly open to dialogue with any party (except the far-right Chega) that can make a new socialist government viable.
What led to this abrupt change of heart, just a few days before Portugal’s snap general election, is the movement in the opinion polls. These show the Socialist Party (PS) head-to-head with the main centre-right party, the PSD.
Indeed, last weekend the PSD led in a number of polls, provoking some panic in the PS headquarters. In the latest poll, the PS recovered some ground, attracting 36.1 per cent support, with the PSD on 32.1. Support for the parties of the left (including the Left Bloc, Communist Party, Greens and Livre) totalled 48.3 per cent, which would enable Costa to lead a new minority or coalition government.
A tracking poll however indicates that public opinion remains volatile and extremely sensitive to the latest gaffes, mishaps, changes of tone and other vagaries of the campaign. With roughly 16 per cent of voters undecided, almost any result is possible.
What seems clear is that an overall majority, to which Costa aspired (and seemed possible) when the snap election was called last November, is highly unlikely. Now, the most optimistic scenario for the socialists is another comfortable plurality, enabling formation of a minority government supported in an ad-hoc fashion by the eco-socialist Livre and the Party of Animals and Nature (though the PAN is also open to negotiations with the PSD).
In the likely event that the votes of the PS, Livre and the PAN are insufficient to secure a majority, another possible scenario would be re-enactment of the innovative governing solution found in 2015, affectionately known as the gerigonça (contraption), whereby a minority socialist government negotiated a quasi-coalition agreement with the radical Left Bloc and the Communist Party – Greens alliance. Gerigonça II could also include Livre.
But the resurgence of the right in recent polls, explained by the shift to the right of the PSD and the fractiousness on the left, suggests an altogether different outcome. Depending on what happens on the last day of the campaign and on the state of mind of undecided voters, a PSD-led coalition or quasi-coalition of the right is also a possibility.
Indeed, in the final week of campaigning the smaller right-wing parties—the conservative Liberal Initiative and the Christian-democrat CDS—have been discussing in public, somewhat in jest, the likely distribution of ministerial portfolios in a PSD-led coalition. Thus far, the PSD leader, Rui Rio, has ruled out inviting Chega, which might become the third largest party, into a PSD-led government. But because Rio was not unequivocal about this, Costa is using the scenario of a PSD government enabled by the far right to galvanise support amongst centrist and left-wing voters.
In short, Sunday’s election remains an open contest, so much so that it might take some days before we know which party will lead the next government.
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Acrimony on the left
If on Monday morning Costa finds himself again on the opposition benches, he is partly to blame. After all, it was his refusal to make concessions to the Left Bloc and the Communist Party during the negotiation of the annual budget last autumn which culminated in the collapse of his minority government and the calling of early elections.
But this wasn’t only down to Costa’s stubbornness: it takes two to tango and the Left Bloc and the Communist Party were equally intransigent. They knew that voting against the budget would result in early elections.
In truth, the failure to negotiate and approve the budget is a symptom of the growing acrimony among the different parties of the left since 2019. To a certain extent, this animosity suggests that bitter historical rivalries and mistrust, going back to the aftermath of the 1974 carnations’ revolution, have not been forgotten. Old habits die hard.
If the experiment of Costa’s anti-austerity gerigonça resulted in four years of stable government, the experiment seems to have exhausted all the parties involved. For the PS, the comfortable plurality of votes won in the 2019 elections meant it could govern without having to spend precious time and resources in daily negotiations with the parties to its left.
For the latter the experience of the gerigonça was also jarring. What the parties had gained in visibility and credibility they risked losing in terms of reputation as the ‘true’ left-wing alternatives to the socialists. Crucially, they knew that the modest gains obtained by the PS at the 2019 election had come at their expense.
Consequently, the different parties adopted more confrontational stances in their dealings. Instead of offering co-operation, the parties on the radical left did not waste any opportunity to attack the socialists. The budgets of 2020 and 2021 were approved despite the abstentions of the Left Bloc and the Communist Party. And last October, both parties voted against the budget.
The factionalism on the left has been equally visible throughout this campaign. Leaders of the Left Bloc and of the Communist Party have been warning voters against the ‘threat’ of a socialist ‘overall majority’. Similarly, Costa started the campaign claiming his party needed an overall majority to govern with stability, accusing the Left Bloc and the Communist Party of irresponsibility.
While these bitter exchanges between left-wing leaders were going on, the parties of the right started cosying up to each other, signalling to voters on their side of the political spectrum that a ‘stable’ alternative was possible.
It is this prospect—of a coalition or ‘contraption’ of the right—that is forcing the socialists and the parties of the left finally to realise that dialogue and co-operation are the only way to keep the right out of power. It remains to be seen whether this epiphany emerged in time to enable the formation of gerigonça mark two.