Not even António Costa himself seemed to believe, after ten o’clock on Sunday night, the figures announced by the exit polls. That the Socialist Party (PS) would win the elections was very feasible, but an absolute majority was “an extreme scenario” that he did not see as likely, as he told RTP.
His team was already handling other calculations, which were confirmed shortly after. The polls failed and practically all the political analysts failed who, during the electoral night, tried to outline reasons, such as the historical fear of the Portuguese voter to great changes, the punishment of the left and the prevention of the electorate before the radical right . Perhaps it is due to the opposite: the excessive centrism of the leader of the opposition, Rui Rio, of the conservative PSD, willing to agree with the socialists on the main lines of government.
In the absence of immediate reasons, psychosocial explanations arose: “Between the opposition’s commitment to a new and uncertain time and the preservation of a proven and guaranteed way of life, the Portuguese preferred the latter,” said the director of the Portuguese newspaper Public, Manuel Carvalho, in the editorial of the night. A reluctance to abrupt changes that some ordinary voters were already ruminating, like Ruth, 42, who left at noon to deposit the ballot in a Lisbon port school without great illusions. “The same ones are going to win, because when there is fear, people vote for the same thing.”
The gross error of the polls was already important in last year’s municipal elections in Lisbon, which against all odds won the conservative PSD, according to the deputy director of the Department of Political Economy of the University Institute of Lisbon (ISCTE), Ricardo Paes Mamede. The economist partially agrees with the diagnosis of the losing candidate, Rui Rio. “The useful vote on the left was completely swept away,” said the conservative leader, who advanced that he would probably resign. The PSD achieved 100,000 more votes than in 2019, but the rise of the PS was so strong – it won in the vast majority of electoral constituencies except for Madeira – that they will be of little use.
On the right, a break with the respectful opposition style of the Portuguese Parliament is announced. With more than 7% of the votes and 12 deputies, Chega’s radicals have been bellicose from the start: “António Costa, I’m coming for you,” announced their leader, André Ventura. The Liberal Initiative, also on the rise, announced that it would “combat socialism,” in the words of its spokesman, João Cotrim de Figueiredo.
To the left is the street
The left will have to weigh whether its collapse is due to the useful vote for the PS, prompted by some polls that placed it in a technical tie with the PSD, or as punishment for the decision not to support the 2021 budgets, whose failure in the Legislative Assembly led the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, to call elections. The differences regarding the minimum wage, pensions, labor legislation and the reinforcement of public health are still there, but now the PS has a free hand.
“The forms may change more than the content,” says Paes Mamede, who believes that the six years of relative social peace that have accompanied the PS thanks to the support of the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and, above all, of the communists ( PCP) come to an end. This will ensure that the socialists do not lose sight of the street and will allow them to “maintain a certain continuity, with signs to the left so as not to lose their base”, but not a clearly leftist policy, which the economist considers already discarded, broadly speaking, once fulfilled the agreements of the first ‘jargon’ in 2017.
The professor is concerned about the “imbalance” of the Portuguese political system in the face of the pronounced decline of the BE and PCP. The communists are behind Chega even in their fiefdoms in the Lisbon conurbation. The cadres of the Bloco, which emerged two decades ago in the heat of social movements for housing or against precariousness, are today 20 years older, which reduces their power of influence among young people, he considers.
Although the resounding victory of the PS prevents “the change in the model of society” that the right advocated, in the sense of greater labor deregulation and privatization, Paes Mamede believes that the Portuguese economy will continue to depend more on the external context than on the public instruments of governorate. “I am a bit cynical about the role that governments can have in Portugal; they are capable of destroying, but not of building much,” he says. Interest rates, the price of oil or the evolution of the European Union will have more influence, in his opinion.
Upward but modest turnout
That in an election only 58% of the population votes would be considered a failure of participation in Spain, where in the least successful calls of the last decade it has barely dropped below 70%. In Portugal, however, Sunday’s figures represent a reversal of an uninterrupted downward trend since 2005. Sociologist António Costa Pinto, from the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, warns that these calculations must take into account a legal change three years ago that eliminated the ballot request, with which residents abroad no longer need to register to vote.
“That artificially increased the electoral body,” he explains, although he points out that the growing disaffection is structural. “It was first noticed in young people, but now it’s becoming apparent in the 30-40 age bracket.” The trend is accentuated by the “alienation of political life caused by poverty and social inequality”, which have increased since the pandemic. Both Costa Pinto and Paes Mamede mention the mobilization of those over 65 around the PS.
The role of the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has been decisive for Costa to now have a free hand. Portugal’s semi-presidential regime allowed Rebelo to call elections, but did not force him. Budget extensions, so common in Spain in recent years, are also legal in the neighboring country, as Eduardo Paz Ferreira, Professor of Law at the University of Lisbon, recalled on public television in November.
Now, Marcelo’s moderating role will be blurred, unless he decides to opt for a more belligerent profile, like that of his predecessor Aníbal Cavaco Silva. The president meets on Tuesday with party leaders to decide who he will appoint as prime minister, a mere formality, given the results.
Coast never fails
Born in 1956, a lawyer by training, originally from a family of Catholic Brahmins from the Indian colony of Goa, as recalled in a campaign profile by the magazine Vision, Costa has chained victories since his time as mayor of Lisbon. “Calculator, but impulsive”, defines the publication, which accounts for certain outbursts of fury. When during a rally a neighbor blamed him for “being on vacation” during the tragic fires in Pedrogão Grande in 2017, in which more than 60 people died, they had to separate Costa from the neighbor so that they did not come to blows. At the same time, his capacity for dialogue is recognized, which is expressed, for example, in his fluid relationship with Rebelo de Sousa.
In the PS he has no rivals left. Until now, the only socialist who had governed with an absolute majority, José Sócrates, whose minister he was and who continues to fight against accusations of corruption, made him ugly during the campaign for having despised that success, an argument that is now nullified.
His possible successor, Pedro Nuno Santos, from the left wing and in favor of reissuing the ‘jargon’, will have to wait. Costa is in a position to equal Cavaco Silva as the longest serving prime minister. “The absolute majority does not imply absolute power,” he assured, announcing the will to continue dialoguing on the right and on the left. The next four years will show if he takes his word for it.