Election Preview: Portugal 2009
Aside from the German election, today’s other big election is the Portuguese general election. Portugal’s 230 seat unicameral Assembly is up for election today, a bit more than four years after the 2005 snap election. This is Portugal’s 13th election since the Carnation Revolution of 1975 which overthrow the dictatorship inherited from Salazar.
Portugal’s political parties can cause confusion to outside observers, not only because they use similar colours but also because they’re misnamed.
The Socialist Party (PS) won the 2005 election in a landslide under the leader of José Sócrates. The PS was founded in exile in Germany during the Estado Novo and ruled Portugal, with Mário Soares as Prime Minister, for a short period of left-wing activity after the adoption of the new Constitution following the Carnation Revolution. Under Mário Soares, Portugal entered the European Community and under António Guterres, Portugal’s economy grew relatively well and the government increased spending on social services. José Sócrates is a member of the right-wing of the PS, and he has led a centrist (his left-wing detractors will say neoliberal) economic policy, cutting in bureaucracy and public spending. Under his tenure, Portugal also legalized abortion after a referendum in 2007 gave a large majority to the pro-choice movement (despite low turnout).
The main centre-right opposition is the Social Democratic Party (PSD), whose ironic name comes from the party’s founder and the Saint for Portuguese rightists, Francisco de Sá Carneiro. Francisco de Sá Carneiro was a populist, who increased social spending and led rather centre-left policies during his short tenure, but the PSD later drifted to the right as evidenced by the tenure of José Manuel Barroso as Prime Minister. Following his departure to assume the Presidency of the European Commission, Pedro Santana Lopes, a gaffe-machine and poor politician became Prime Minister until losing the 2005 election in a landslide. The PS and PSD are known as the centrao parties, rather centrist parties with little important policy differences.
Portugal has had a strong Communist Party, and the Communist Party gained significant political power shortly after the Carnation Revolution, notably influencing an agrarian reform in the south. Today’s Communist Party (PCP) is grouped with a small irrelevant Green Party (PEV) in the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (CDU). Unlike most European communist parties, the PCP has not adopted a more moderate course (eurocommunism) and has remained a unreformed old-style communist party. For example, it still uses the old communist rhetoric denouncing imperialists, bourgeois and exploiters of the proletariat. The PEV is a joke party and it’s eternal coalition with the PCP doesn’t help the party much in the eyes of voters.
The Left Bloc (BE) is Portugal’s other far-left party, though the BE is more Trotskyst, New Left and anticapitalist. While the PCP is the authoritarian far-left, the BE is the more libertarian far-left. In addition to its anticapitalism, it is strongly socially liberal, feminist and ecologist. It is popular mostly with students and the BE has been the main benefactor of left-wing discontent with the centrist policies of the Socialist government.
The Democratic and Social Centre-People’s Party (CDS/PP) runs to the right of the PSD, and is considered a right-wing christian democratic party. It is strongly socially conservative, campaigning against abortion in the 2007 referendum for example, but also very right-wing on economic matters. Those who aren’t fond of the party will call it anywhere from Christian right, extreme neoliberal, or even far-right. They’re usually the PSD’s coalition partner, and they were so during Barroso’s term in office.
The 2005 election was a snap election after Barroso’s successor, the gaffe-prone Pedro Santana Lopes was unable to hold his coalition government together. In addition to his being unpopular as a person, the government was also hurt by a poor economic outlook. The PS swept into office and won a majority on its own historic feat.
PS 45.0% (+7.2%) winning 121 seats (+25)
PSD 28.8% (-11.4%) winning 75 seats (-30)
PCP-PEV 7.6% (+0.6%) winning 14 seats (+2)
CDS/PP 7.3% (-1.5%) winning 12 seats (-2)
BE 6.4% (+3.7%) winning 8 seats (+5)
Portugal is divided into twenty-two PR constituencies for legislative elections, 18 in mainland Portugal (these constituencies are also administrative districts), one each for the Azores and Madeira, one for Portuguese in Europe and one for Portuguese around the world. The number of seats per constituency, save for the two diaspora ones which are fixed at 2 seats each, changes every election. It ranges from 47 in Lisbon to just two in Portalegre. The seats are allocated by district using d’Hondt. The electoral system tends to favour larger parties over smaller parties. The majority ‘threshold’ is around 44%.
The PS defeated the PSD by a five-point margin in the June European elections, winning 32% against 27% for the PS. The BE and PCP won 11% each, and the CDS/PP won 8%. However, current polls show that the PS’ lead over the PSD is increasing, though the PS will obviously not retain its absolute majority it won in the 2005 landslide. The main benefactors, as mentioned above, of the PS’ relatively unpopularity is the BE, which could very well poll double-digits this election. The PSD has had trouble capitalizing on the little love for Sócrates, mainly because the PSD’s leader, Manuela Ferreira Leite, is as charismatic as a wet pizza. Sócrates can thank the PSD’s poor leadership for his continued first place in polls. In the last days, the PS’ numbers have improved because the Socialists have called on voters to vote ‘usefully’ for them, instead of, say, the BE or PCP. The PS is now ranging between 38% and 40%, the PSD between 29% and 32%, the BE between 9 and 11%, the PCP and CDS between 7 and 8.5% each. The main coalition option the table is a Socialist minority government, or a more unlikely PS-BE coalition. The PSD-CDS is very unlikely to get a majority (44% of the vote), and their leaders now hate each other. A Grand Coalition is acceptable only without Sócrates.