Portugal’s Socialists win surprise majority as voters ‘bank on stability’

Prime minister António Costa upsets polls and can now govern without other left support

Portugal’s Socialist prime minister, António Costa, has promised stability for his country after upsetting the polls and securing a parliamentary majority in Sunday’s general election.

“The Portuguese have shown a red card to any kind of political crisis,” Mr Costa (60) said as he acknowledged his victory.

His party won 117 seats in the 250-seat chamber, well ahead of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD), which was runner-up.

It was a surprise result, with most polls leading up to the election showing the centre-left Socialists to be in a virtual tie with the PSD. It means Mr Costa will no longer need to depend on the Left Bloc and Communist Party, who had supported him since 2015, in the so-called geringonça (contraption) partnership.

“The Portuguese value the support they have received in the face of Covid-19, such as furloughs and the efforts of the national health system,” noted Rosalía Amorim, editor of Diário de Notícias newspaper of the result, the Socialists’ strongest since 2005.

“In practice, they preferred to bank on stability and they have chosen the leader they already knew. At the same time, the Portuguese have made clear what they don’t want: either left-wing geringonças or right-wing geringonças.”

The leftist governing partnership began in 2015, when Mr Costa was runner-up to the PSD, which had failed to form a government. The three-way agreement defied the expectations of many by rolling back austerity policies, reducing unemployment and continuing after a 2019 election win for Mr Costa. However, a dispute over the 2022 budget caused the accord to collapse, triggering Sunday’s vote.

Far-right gains

The PSD leader, Rui Rio, hinted that he might step down due to his party's disappointing result, which he blamed on a split vote on the right. The far-right Chega, which won only one seat in 2019, performed strongly and now has 12 seats, making it the third force in parliament.

"We will be the opposition in Portugal, " said Chega's leader, André Ventura, a former sports commentator who targeted the Roma community on the campaign trail and has called for chemical castration for paedophiles and rapists. He added: "António Costa, I'm right behind you now."

The pro-business Liberal Initiative (IL) party also made gains.

However, Mr Costa’s erstwhile governing partners both suffered from the recent infighting which led up to this election, with the Left Bloc and the Communists each registering substantial losses.

“An absolute majority is not absolute power, it doesn’t mean governing alone,” Mr Costa said, promising his government would be “a majority of dialogue with all the forces of parliament”.

However, his strengthened position will make it easier to distribute €16.6 billion in EU recovery funds. There was further good news for Mr Costa on Monday as new data showed that the Portuguese economy grew by 4.9 percent in 2021, surpassing estimates by the European Commission and Portuguese central bank.

Mr Costa’s Spanish counterpart Pedro Sánchez, a fellow Socialist, congratulated him on Twitter. “Portugal has chosen once again a social-democratic project which unites growth and social justice,” Mr Sánchez said.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain

READ MORE