Article @ New Statesman, published 9 October 2019
Closing Telejornal’s election night coverage in the early hours of 7 October, Portuguese veteran news anchor José Rodrigues dos Santos wished viewers good night from “a country that looks very different and yet somewhat still the same”. The contradictory sign-off could not have been more appropriate, encapsulating the political situation in Portugal following the general election, locally known as the legislativas. At first glance, the Portuguese electorate seem to have endorsed the geringonça – which loosely translates as “contraption”. This was the agreement reached between Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist Party (PS) and the far-left Communist Party (PCP) and the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) to ensure a stable government after elections in 2015 resulted in a hung parliament.
Under the PS-led administration, a more progressive package of fiscal and social policies reversed much of the damage inflicted by an austerity programme that the previous conservative government introduced in 2011.
The electorate appears content with Costa, granting the PS just under 37 per cent of the vote and an extra 20 seats in the Assembleia, Portugal’s parliament. The other partners did not fare so well – Bloco retained its seats in parliament, but lost vote share, while the alliance between the PCP and the Portuguese Greens (CDU) saw its vote share plummet to 6.5 per cent.
The success of Portugal’s leftist parties is remarkable at a time of rising right-wing populism and xenophobia across Europe. But in another sense the results are surprisingly mediocre, given that the geringonça has increased the national minimum wage, overseen a general fall in unemployment and led an economic recovery in which Portugal’s GDP grew by 1.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2018.
The election result was also marred by an unprecedented 45.5 per cent abstention rate; more people decided not to vote rather than support the parties that have, albeit marginally, improved the quality of their lives.
The more significant news, perhaps, is the collection of new parties that have gained seats in parliament for the first time, including the animal rights party PAN and André Ventura’s Chega – the first avowedly fascist party to enter parliament since the Carnation Revolution of 1974.
On the last day of campaigning I followed members of Bloco de Esquerda around the streets of Lisbon and Setúbal, speaking to their candidates and supporters, and gauging how they felt after four years in government.
“Today, people have a clearer sense of what they do and do not want,” Bloco’s MP Isabel Pires told me when I met her at the party’s Lisbon headquarters, a beautiful 19th-century mansion occupied by the International Communist League in 1975 and the unofficial home of Portuguese radical politics since.
She told me how people on the streets asked twice before they took Bloco’s leaflets – they did not want to read anything from the pro-austerity Christian democratic People’s Party (CDS) and its leader Assunção Cristas. “We heard this every day,” Pires said.
The CDS suffered the most on election night, losing 13 seats, prompting Cristas, a former environment minister and a fierce proponent of austerity, to resign. The Social-Democratic Party (PSD) lost 12 of its MPs. The two parties had run together in 2015, winning 38.6 per cent of the vote. This time around they barely topped 32 per cent. Their commitment to austerity and privatisation of national services and industries are no longer attractive policies for most voters, who increasingly favour investment in public services and a rise in wages and pensions.
For those voters who still subscribe to the neoliberal programme espoused by the CDS and PSD there are now other parties to vote for, such as Iniciativa Liberal, which, despite being led by two “tech bro” champions of Ayn Rand, seems to have attracted enough votes from the liberal classes to gain a seat in parliament.
Pires was cautious about the future of the geringonça and the new political forces she feared might gain support. Like Bloco’s leader, Catarina Martins, Pires does not discount the BE continuing to support the geringonça, but added that it would depend “on factors that are a little uncertain, including which other parties will join [the governing coalition]”.
In his victory speech, Costa extended a hand to the animal rights party (PAN), as well as Livre, an eco-socialist, pro-EU party, which is also the first in Portugal to be led by a black woman, Joacine Katar Moreira. These two new parties could alter the balance of forces within the geringonça.
The PS cannot govern alone, but with enough sangfroid and political wit it could make itself a minority government that keeps the smaller satellite parties happy and therefore willing to help it pass its political and economic programme.
Which brings us back to a Portugal that is the same as it always was and yet completely different. Because while it is clear that for enough Portuguese voters the political status quo is no longer acceptable, it is also true that no matter what the incoming coalition government looks like, a second geringonça would keep PS’s neoliberal tendencies in check, but also soften the more radical policies of its far-left partners.
Only time will tell if this elaborate parliamentary dance is precisely what the Portuguese people demanded as an alternative to the tired two-party hegemony of the PS and PSD, or if, in the end, there are too many cooks in the kitchen. But one thing is for certain. The geringonça that followed years of hard and exhausting austerity delivered many of the things the Portuguese people had asked for, and helped restore faith in the country’s political system after a series of short-lived provisional governments.
But if the left, and even the PS, wants to take advantage of this political moment, and continue to prevent the rise of right-wing populism, it must do more, and be bolder in its intent. Otherwise, as has happened in Greece, the mood might quickly turn sour.