Loss of majority in Portuguese election a headache for coalition

Centre-right partnership received 38.5% of the votes – but it will have to read carefully

The general election result was a clear victory for prime minister and Social Democratic party leader Pedro Passos Coelho but the coalition no longer controls parliament. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

The general election result was a clear victory for prime minister and Social Democratic party leader Pedro Passos Coelho but the coalition no longer controls parliament. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

 

“A right-wing government in a left-wing parliament,” was the headline in Jornal de Notícias newspaper following Sunday’s Portuguese general election. The result is expected to see a centre-right coalition that has overseen four years of strict austerity continue in power, but its loss of a majority creates an unstable political landscape.

The conservative partnership formed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the People’s Party (CDS) received 38.5 per cent of votes, winning 104 seats in the 230-seat parliament, with four seats still to be allocated from votes from abroad. It was a clear victory over the opposition Socialist Party, whose seats dropped to 85, but the coalition no longer controls parliament as it did before.

“It would be strange if the winner of the elections couldn’t govern,” said prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, asserting his right to maintain in the post, but also acknowledging the fragility of the new parliament.

Suggesting that his new government, if it transpires, may have to tread more carefully in introducing economic reforms than it did in his previous term, he added: “The Portuguese clearly want the PSD and CDS to form a government for four more years. They didn’t give us an absolute majority. We will know how to respond to that.”

Passos Coelho’s administration cut pensions, raised taxes and froze salaries as it enthusiastically fulfilled the terms of a €78 billion EU bailout, negotiated in 2011 following Portugal’s financial collapse. The deficit has been brought under control and the economy is now growing again.

President Aníbal Cavaco Silva is expected to invite Passos Coelho to form a new government. If he does, this would be the first euro zone administration to be re-elected after applying severe austerity measures.

However, history suggests a new right-wing coalition would struggle. Only one minority government has lasted a full term in Portugal since the return to democracy in 1974.

The biggest surprise of the election was the performance of the radical Leftist Bloc (BE), which took 19 seats, more than doubling its presence in parliament and leapfrogging the more established Communist Party, which came fourth. It was a result that confirmed a growing backlash against austerity.

Fighting austerity

“BE is strengthened with the responsibility to fulfil its electoral commitment to defending salaries, defending pensions, defending workers’ dignity and fighting austerity and poverty,” said Mariana Mortágua, a deputy for the party in parliament.

While Portugal has not witnessed the kind of anti-austerity electoral phenomena that Spain and Greece have seen in recent years, BE, led by Catarina Martins, does enjoy the backing of Podemos across the border. It has undoubtedly been helped by the likes of Mortágua (28), who made a name for herself and raised the party’s profile earlier this year with her energetic probe into the collapse of the Espírito Santo bank empire.

Writing in Público newspaper, Mortágua suggested that her party was prepared to form a left-wing coalition to keep Passos Coelho out of power.

“It won’t be because of us that a right-wing minority governs the country, imposing a programme of further austerity and poverty, whatever the president of the republic decides to do,” she noted.

The Socialists, who were the election’s most notable losers, could feasibly form a majority with BE and the Communists. But the Socialist Party’s moderate policy platform and refusal to reject austerity outright make that an unlikely outcome.

Despite its disappointing result, the Socialists, led by António Costa, could be key in ensuring Portugal recovers its political stability. A new centre-right government would almost certainly need their support to get next year’s budget approved in the coming weeks – if not, new elections could be called as soon as next year.

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