Portugal 2011

A legislative election was held in Portugal on June 5, 2011 to elect all 230 members of the Assembly of the Republic, Portugal’s unicameral legislature. The legislature’s 230 members are elected in twenty-two multi-member districts through the d’Hondt method of proportional representation. These districts correspond to mainland Portugal’s 18 districts, the two autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira and two additional constituencies for Portuguese abroad: one for those in Europe, one for those outside Europe. The number of seats attributed to each constituencies varies based on population, and often changes before an election. Lisbon elects the most MPs, 47, followed by Porto electing 39. The overseas and Portalegre elect only two members. Before this election, Coimbra lost one seat (down from 10 to 9) at the benefit of Faro which gained one (from 8 to 9).

This election comes less than two years after the 2009 election and was caused by the opposition’s refusal to support more spending cuts proposed by the minority Socialist government, in a precarious position since the economic crisis hit Portugal extremely hard. During the election campaign, the IMF and EU approved a bailout package for Portugal worth billions of dollars.

Portugal has been ruled since 2005 by the Socialist Party (PS)’s José Sócrates who won an overall majority in 2005 and was reelected to a minority in 2009. A run-of-the-mill European social democratic party, the PS under Sócrates has taken a decisive turn towards third-way centrism typical of contemporary European social democracy. The PS, under Mário Soares and later António Guterres, governed Portugal between 1976 and 1978, 1983 and 1985, 1995 and 2002 and since 2005.

Portugal suffers from an acute case of sinistrisme, the leftover shreds of the right-wing Salazar dictatorship in Portugal. The mainstream Portuguese right is led by the Social Democratic Party (PSD). The PSD’s name both reflects the little appeal of the right-wing labels ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in Portugal since Salazar, and the ideological thought of its founder Francisco Sá Carneiro. Sá Carneiro, who died in a plane crash in 1980, was a populist at the helm of an ideological current of “Portuguese social democracy”, at the outset a progressive non-communist and anti-statist ideology perhaps influenced by some elements of Christian social teachings. The PSD later moved to the right, notably under the 1985-1995 rule of Aníbal Cavaco Silva (the incumbent president) who ushered in economic liberalization, tax cuts and several years of economic growth. The PSD’s most prominent figure is, of course, José Manuel Durão Barroso, the current President of the European Commission and Prime Minister of Portugal between 2002 and 2004. Barroso was succeeded by the hapless Pedro Santana Lopes who lost the 2005 election in a landslide. The PSD has been led since 2010 by Pedro Passos Coelho, a centrist within the PSD. He is generally viewed as competent and though not especially popular on his own, he’s far more competent and far more popular than his hapless predecessor Manuela Ferreira Leite.

To the PSD’s right is the Democratic and Social Centre – People’s Party (CDS-PP), the PSD’s junior partner between 2002 and 2005. Broadly similar to the PSD, the CDS-PP mixes economic liberalism with social conservatism (it is vocally pro-life) and soft eurosceptic nationalism. The party has been led since 2007 by Paulo Portas, a former cabinet minister and party leader between 1998 and 2005.

The ‘left of the left’ in Portugal features two parties. The oldest party, which is actually a permanent coalition, is the Democratic Unity Coalition (CDU) which is dominated by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and their sidekick, the Greens (PEV). The PCP, which remains one of Europe’s most successful communist parties, has maintained a high level of influence in its southern strongholds. The PCP is an unreformed communist party of the old days, best derided as Stalinists. The PEV is basically irrelevant. The strongest party of the ‘left of the left’ in 2009 was the Left Bloc (BE), a party founded in 1999 by Maoists, Trots, anarchists and various other New Left-type movements. Compared to the archaic Stalinists, the BE is the ‘libertarian’ (in social terms, obviously) faction of the far-left and enjoys strong support from academics and students.

Portugal has suffered extensively from the economic crisis, necessitating a bailout and the associated spending cuts prescribed by the IMF and the EU. Naturally, the poor economic situation, at the outset, benefited the PSD which had a large lead over the incumbent Socialists in opinion polls. But as the election was called, the PS under Sócrates managed to roar back to a tie and even pull ahead (narrowly) in some polls. The PSD “opposed” the spending cuts which brought down the government, attempting unsuccessfully to make people believe that they wouldn’t apply the same spending cuts if elected. Sócrates was able to present himself as the defender of Portugal’s sovereignty in negotiating the bailout and holding out in opposition to such a bailout until the last minute. At any rate, voters expressed deep pessimism about their economic future and had little illusions in that both a PS and PSD government would adopt the same spending cuts. The popular mood seemed resigned to suffer the spending cuts and other prescribed medicines. The PSD, however, gained in the final stretch leading by roughly 5-7%.

In this context, it might be surprising that the CDU and BE didn’t benefit more from the economic situation. The BE, which achieved a record success in 2009 on the back of protest votes from many PS voters, was down considerably from its 2009 levels in polls. The BE’s Francisco Louçã has since become unpopular, with the BE being perceived as having little to offer on its own aside from opposition. The CDU did lead a good campaign, appearing more modern, but the hard-left nature of the PCP probably precludes major gains for them outside their traditional range.

Turnout was 58.9%, down slightly since 2009 but an historically low turnout since the Carnation Revolution. Here are the results for all 226 seats elected in the Republic of Portugal but excluding four overseas seats which will be counted on June 15. For better comparison, seat results are compared to the 226 seats elected in Portugal.

PSD 38.63% (+9.52%) winning 105 seats (+27)
PS 28.05% (-8.5%) winning 73 seats (-23)
CDS-PP 11.74% (+1.31%) winning 24 seats (+3)
CDU (PCP-PEV) 7.94% (+0.08%) winning 16 seats (+1)
BE 5.19% (-4.63%) winning 8 seats (-7)
PCTP/MRPP 1.13% (+0.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PAN 1.04% (+1.04%) winning 0 seats (nc)

In the end, the PS’ strong campaign was not enough to turn the tide against the incumbents in the midst of a recession. The PS was unambiguously swept out of office, taking its worst result since 1987 while the PSD and the CDS-PP will have enough seats to form a right-wing coalition. The Socialists have suffered from the effects of the crisis, and while voters probably fully realize that a PSD government will have similar policies, it went with the opposition if only because they’re not the government. On the far-left, the BE drops back from an artificially high result in 2009 back down to its 2005 level. The CDU largely failed to benefit from the unpopularity of the government, and actually lost ground in its Alentejo strongholds but did gain a seat in Faro for the first time since the 1980s. The CDS-PP won its strongest showing since 1983, benefiting from a strong campaign.

The consensus seems to be for a PSD/CDS-PP coalition, similar to the one which governed in Portugal between 2002 and 2005. But that coalition saw much dissonance between the two partners, and with Paulo Portas (the main cause of dissonance back then) still in the decor, it is likely that a new coalition between the two allies will see more infighting. A PSD minority supported by the CDS-PP might in fact see much less arm twisting and infighting.

The map might not be beautiful for left-wingers, but it shows beautifully the north-south division inherent in Portuguese politics. Northern Portugal is the conservative heart of the country, with high levels of church attendance and geography marked by small property, individual property and large families as the basic social unit. This is traditionally the core of the PSD’s support, but the PS is traditionally powerful in Porto, an old industrial town and a republican stronghold in the past. Moving south, the church’s influence is weaker and geography is marked by larger and larger properties before finally reaching the latifundios of the sparse arid lands of the Alentejo (a region similar to Andalusia). Most land in the Alentejo remains in the hands of single families, following the failure of the PCP-driven agrarian reform in the 1970s. The Alentejo, which is also very poor, is the most left-wing region in Portugal and, traditionally, the stronghold of the PCP. The PCP, in better years, won and can still win the districts of Évora, Beja and Setúbal. Though traditionally included in the Alentejo, Setúbal is largely driven by the industrial harbour city of Setúbal and Lisbon’s working-class suburbs situated across the river from the capital, which is traditionally a PS stronghold. The Algarve, separated by mountains from the Alentejo, is politically and socially distinct from the rest of southern Portugal. El Publico gives you more results by municipality while the official website is also fantastic.

The PS took a thumping in the Azores, where it currently holds the autonomous government. The PSD won 47.36% to the PS’ 25.67% (in 2009, the PS took 39.7% to the PSD’s 35.7%). In conservative Madeira, ruled as a single-party state by the PSD boss Alberto João Jardim since 1978, the PSD won 49.39% against 14.68% for the PS. Notably, José Manuel Coelho, Madeira’s second most influential and equally controversial politician, who won 39% in Madeira in the presidential election earlier this year, took only 2.13% for his new party, the PTP. On an additional note, another 2011 presidential candidate, Fernando Nobre, a maverick NGO worker and doctor (and independent candidate) was elected to Parliament as the PSD’s top candidate in Lisbon. Nobre’s choice was controversial, and will continue to create controversy given that the office of president of the Assembly has been promised to him and he has indicated that he would resign if not elected to that office.

Overseas mandates will be counted on June 15. Two seats come from Europe, two from outside Europe. In 2009, they split 3-1 in the PSD’s favor. Turnout is ridiculously low (23% in Europe, 9% outside Europe), but Portuguese citizens living in Europe are more favourable to the PS while the few Portuguese living outside Europe who bother to vote (largely in Brazil, the US and Canada) are strongly PSD which won 54.5% in that constituency last time around. The seats will very likely split 3-1 in the PSD’s favour again, bringing them up to 108 and the PS up to 74.

The loss of Lisbon, Porto but also of Portalegre and Castelo Branco (Sócrates’ home turf) make this election a very bad one for the PS. It is similar to the 2005 election, albeit with the PS as the governing party taking the thumping. But the PSD alone did not win an absolute majority. The PS itself, even though badly beaten, has not been dealt a mortal blow and will very probably roar back as the new governments gets the have the fun task of dealing with a recession. This election is neither a realignment or deviating election, it is merely example #8956 of “government losing reelection [during an economic crisis]”. Pedro Passos Coelho’s government will be comepelled by outside forces (the so-called ‘troika’ of the IMF, EU and ECB) to apply stringent spending cuts to receive the IMF-EU bailout. The PSD’s program, to give an idea of what this means in details, spells out the party’s plan: decentralization for health and education (probably a keyword for exploring privatization of social security and down-shifting costs to equally bankrupt local governments), corporate tax cuts, privatizations in telecommunications, reducing the legislature to 181 members, 15% spending cuts in each ministry, and not replacing four out of five retiring public servants. Tough medicine, and usually the type of government agenda which doesn’t make the head of government win popularity contests.

On a irrelevant note, this election ends six years of socialist rule over both countries on the Iberian peninsula.

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Posted on June 6, 2011, in Portugal. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Gustavo Moraes

    Hey Guys,

    Where are Madeira and Açores islands in the map?
    Portugal is not only Iberic peninsule …

    Congratulations for worldwide coverege.

  2. Thank you for the interesting coverage and the presentation of portuguese politics.

    Obviously the results are depressing and a dark days seem to be coming in Portugal…

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