• The 2019 Electoral Cycle in Portugal

  • By Tatiana Moutinho | 13 May 19 | Posted under: Portugal , Elections , The Left
  • Analysis from our member organisation ''Cultra'' upon the political landscape in Portugal, shaped by a recent governmental crisis.

    In Portugal, the EP elections will precede the National Assembly elections, that will take place in the October the 6th and from which a new government will be formed.

    Traditionally, the EP elections are the least participated (attaining, in 2014, a record of 66% voters’ abstention) and are mostly addressed from an internal perspective, i.e., the electorate tends to show its content/discontent regarding Portuguese politics, rather than responding to the European programmes proposed. Therefore, it is expected that voters will tend to focus on the campaign more from the perspective of the impacts that EU policies and treaties have in Portugal, rather than on discussion about the European Union project itself.

    Seventeen political forces (parties and coalitions of parties) are running for the 21 MEP Portuguese seats. It is expected that the (PS, the centre-left party now in government), the PSD (centre-right), Bloco de Esquerda, CDU (the coalition of the Communist Party, PCP, and the Greens, PEV) and CDP/PP (conservative right party) elect MEPs. Polls also point towards the possibility, albeit remote, of the election of a single MEP by PAN (Ecological/Green party that has one seat at the National Assembly) and Aliança (a new neoliberal party, created by Pedro Santana Lopes, a former leader and short-term prime-minister of PSD).

    Given the traditional high percentage of non-voters in the EP elections in Portugal, it should be stressed that it is very difficult to have a clear perspective of the outcome of the elections in Portugal.

    Over the past week, a quite unexpected political crisis provoked by the government emerged in Portugal and ended today. From the government perspective this crisis aimed at divert the political debate from the EP election campaign and, simultaneously with an eye on the October national elections, discredit both parties at its Left and at its Right. It is probably too soon to fully understand the consequences of one week of a truly political rollercoaster, yet some conclusion may already be drawn.

    The current Portuguese political situation

    The Portuguese government that came out from the 2015 National Assembly elections, known as “Geringonça” (“Contraption”), is a peculiar political centre-left situation: a minoritary government ruled by the Socialist Party with the support of the two left parties with parliamentary representation: Bloco de Esquerda and CDU (the coalition of the Communist Portuguese Party and the Greens). In 2015, Geringonça was the pragmatic political barrier to prevent the coalition between the two major right wing parties (PSD and CDS), which governed the country during the Troika years, from being government. Whilst in office, the Socialist party has played a role similar to that of a circus contortionist: in one hand trying to comply with the EU policies and restraints and, on the other hand, meeting the demands of Bloco and CDU of Troika’s imposed cuts’ reversal, salaries and pension increase, more public investment, etc.

    The Portuguese government that came out from the 2015 National Assembly elections, known as “Geringonça” (“Contraption”), is a peculiar political centre-left situation: a minoritary government ruled by the Socialist Party with the support of the two left parties with parliamentary representation: Bloco de Esquerda and CDU (the coalition of the Communist Portuguese Party and the Greens). In 2015, Geringonça was the pragmatic political barrier to prevent the coalition between the two major right wing parties (PSD and CDS), which governed the country during the Troika years, from being government. Whilst in office, the Socialist party has played a role similar to that of a circus contortionist: in one hand trying to comply with the EU policies and restraints and, on the other hand, meeting the demands of Bloco and CDU of Troika’s imposed cuts’ reversal, salaries and pension increase, more public investment, etc.

    As result of losing power, Pedro Passos Coelho, the former Portuguese prime-minister and a fervent supporter of the neoliberal European austerity, resigned from the leadership of the party and was succeeded by Rui Rio, who supports a more centre-right view of the party. This leadership has led the party into a profound crisis with some members resigning and forming two new political parties, that will run for the EP elections: Aliança, lead by Pedro Santana Lopes, a former leader and short-term prime-minister of PSD, and Chega lead by André Ventura, a city council in a town near Lisbon (Loures). Both of these new parties adopt a populist narrative, with Aliança being an openly neoliberal party and Chega adopting a pretty close to the far-right populist narrative; Chega is running for EP elections in a coalition (Basta) with other small right-wing forces.

    The forthcoming EP elections in Portugal – candidates and polls

    In 2014 the distribution of MEP seats was the following: PS elected 8 MEPs (S&D group), PSD+CDS (who run in coalition) 6+1 and integrated the EPP; PS CDU 3 MEPs (GUE/NGL) and Bloco 1 MEP (GUE/NGL). In 2014, an outsider political force PDR elected 2 MEPs and the chances of repeating this score are infinitesimal.

    PSD, CDU, Bloco and CDS run for the EP 2019 elections with the same leading candidates as in 2014: Paulo Rangel (vice-chair of the EPP), João Ferreira, Marisa Matias and Nuno Melo, respectively. The leading candidate of the PS is Pedro Marques, former minister of Planning and Infrastructures.

    2019 began with the center-right party plunged into a deep crisis: the new leadership headed by Rui Rio and with extreme difficulties in imposing itself inside the party allied to the good economic results of Geringonça ("Contraption", the minority socialist government with parliamentary support of the left parties, Bloco, PCP and the Greens). This political situation was clearly reflected by different polls on the European elections published earlier this year, which pointed to a gap between the center-left party (PS) and the center-right party (PSD) between 10% and 20%. However, the past three months have been demonstrating that what appeared to be a triumphal walk of PS up to May the 26th (a victory that could end up in the election of 10 MEP’s for PS and a only 5 MEP’s for PSD) became a tortuous path for the governmental party: the gap between the centre-left and centre-right parties has been steadily narrowing and two different polls published by the end of april even point towards the possibility of a technical tie (a gap of 2% to 3% lead by PS and the election of the same number of MEP’s). Despite the fact that, up to now, no polling sutdies has challenged the PS victory in the forthcoming European elections, there is a possibility that such result could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

    This gap narrowing between PS and PSD can be explained by a cumulative succession of events. Firstly, the choice of the PS’ leading candidate for the EP elections. As minister of planning and infrastructures, Pedro Marques had always reached little public recognition and is a low-profile politician. Its ministerial role in the government turned him into an easy target for criticism, not only because of the so far low execution of the 2020 Cohesion Funds but also due to a failure on the 2021-2027 Cohesion Fund negotiation process in which Portugal is expected to suffer a 7% cut. Internally, the government has been subjected to strong contestation (including strikes and demonstrations) by several activity sectors (professors, nurses, medical doctors, drivers of dangerous goods transport vehicles, …), along with an awkward governmental reshuffle that has been severely criticized due to several family relationships between members of the government. According to the polls the conservative right party, CDS, shall elect one MEP; election of a second MEP cannot be discarded although small.

    The Portuguese Left and the EP elections campaign

    On the Left side of Portuguese politics, all the polls point to results in which the number of Portuguese MEPs in GUE/NGL will remain constant, namely four.

    For CDU (PCP+PEV) the polls range between 11.3% (in January) to 7.6 % (in April), opening the possibility for the coalition to loose one MEP). CDU defines this candidacy as not being “anti-europeist” and the coalition campaign’s discourse encompasses harsh criticisms regarding the EU and its institutions, which converted the troika policies into doctrine. The Communists and Greens defend an alternative to the EU based on sovereignty and equality between states, oriented towards social and economic development and for the promotion of peace and solidarity. In terms of program the priorities are the debt renegotiation and exit the Euro zone. From the 2014-2019 EP term João Ferreira draws three main conclusions: 1) the economical Portuguese improvement attained these past years was only possible progressive because  they opposed the EU; 2) EU’s policies, orientations and impositions, especially those associated with the Euro, prevent the country from solving its structural problems; 3) the need for a profound change at the level of the Portuguese policies, with clear confrontation with EU’s policies and impositions.

    Bloco shall recover from a bad result of the 2014 EP elections (4.56% ) with the polls ranging from a minimum of 6.3% (in January) to a maximum of 9.2% (in February). This means that Bloco de Esquerda’s goal of enlarging its EP representation is feasible, corresponding to the election of Marisa Matias and José Gusmão (an economist, who worked at the European Parliament between 2011 and 2018, was an MP between 2009-2011, is member of the Politic Board of Bloco and has been deeply involved in fiscal/tax issues, particularly those involving tax evasion).

    Bloco’s list for the 2019 EP elections is composed by 11 women and 10 men, with eleven independent candidates, among them several trade unionists and activists (feminism, environment, anti-racism, human rights). Bloco’s campaign has been focused on three main axes: welfare state, labour and environment. From Bloco’s perspective, the improvements on the social and economic Portuguese situation over the past four years are a clear demonstration that the austerity strategy of the EU is wrong and, yet, these are lessons that the EU is not willing to take. Therefore, Bloco’s campaign assumes a narrative of confrontation with the EU institutions and treaties.

    Bloco runs for the 2019 EP election as part of the Now the People’s movement, together with France Insoumise (France), Podemos (Spain), Red-Green Alliance (Danmark), Left Party (Sweden), Lef Alliance (Finland), assuming a harsh criticism of the EU treaties – especially the Budgetary Treaty -, denouncing the lack of democracy at the European institutions and claiming for national sovereignty (defined as broader spaces for national policies decision).

    Livre, a small political force who attained % in the 2014 EP elections is running with the Diem25 and presents the Green New Deal as programme, is not expected to elect any MEP.

    The “teacher’s crisis” or the Chronicle of a Death Foretold – a double-fold PS strategy vis-à- vis the 2019 elections

    In January 2018, and due to the agreements established under the auspices Geringonça between the government party and the Left parties, the career progression in the public sector - which had been frozen by austerity imposition of the PS and PSD/CDS governments - was reset . Out of this agreement is the time count of the so-called "special careers", whose progression is also based on the length of service count. Special careers include teachers who, throughout the entire legislature, have demanded the full count of the length of service (9 years, 4 months and 2 days). The recognition of the full length of service count of all special careers has been a claim supported by the Bloco que Esquerda and CDU (PCP + Greens) and has even been inscribed in the 2018 and 2019 national budgets.

    Last March, the government unilaterally decided that the teachers' time count would be of only 2 years, 9 months, and 18 days. This decree was subject to a parliamentary motion for review last week (May the 2nd) and, in a negotiating marathon between parties at the Commission for Education level, right-wing parties played a political turnaround and agreed with the Left (and against the will of PS) on the recognition of the full time count of service length for teachers’ careers. Without an agreement between the Right (who argued that the count of service length should be dependent on budgetary criteria, making it virtually impossible) and the Left (with proposals for staged and scheduled for replenishment), the full time count would be inscribed in the final wording of the diploma, making it responsibility of the next government to start a new negotiation process.

    The government responded by opening a political crisis: if the parliament were to approve the full count of the time of service of the teachers, even in the context of the next legislature, the government would resign.

    While politicians from the right wing of PS promptly accused the left parties, that support the government's solution via Geringonça, of being irresponsible and radical in their proposals, the prime minister António Costa chose to launch an attack on the Right with the accusation of taking part in a "negative coalition".

    The political hurricane that the PS needed vis-a-vis the two forthcoming electoral cycles was launched. On the one hand, and within three weeks of the elections, the campaign for the European elections that was manifestly bad for the Socialists passed in the political debate. On the other hand, the right-wing parties - who quickly announced that they would end up voting against what they had voted for in the Education Commission-, end this process in the most fragile position. This weakening of the Right may be absolutely instrumental to the greater purpose of the PS regarding the October national elections: a victory with an absolute majority.

    The crisis ended a week after it was originally staged: in the vote the PS voted against all the proposals put forward, the right voted against the proposal of the left that secured the negotiation in a future legislature and the left voted against the proposal of the right that ensured that such be made impossible by budgetary criteria.

    The political outcome of this simulated crisis will become evident in a near future.


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