Article @ Jacobin, published 30 January 2022
After two years of pandemic conditions, leaders across Europe are holding on to their positions as if to dear life. The first to go was Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte, who buckled under pressure last February, handing over the reins to the technocrat Mario Draghi. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s long-awaited departure brought a swing to the center left. In Britain, Boris Johnson faces mounting calls to resign following a steady stream of revelations about parties held in his residence during lockdown.
But what no European politician even thought of doing was risk a snap election, in the belief that, despite current unknowns and adversities, they would amass a thumping majority. None, that is, bar Portuguese prime minister António Costa. Today he will find out whether his gamble has paid off — and if he has improved upon the 36 percent his party achieved in the last such contest in October 2019, shortly before COVID-19 hit.
The move can’t simply be explained as some sort of megalomaniac bout of confidence. Rather, Costa had material reasons to believe this was a smart political maneuver when the opportunity presented itself. His Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) had ruled as a minority government since 2019, following four years in which he depended on a governmental agreement with the far left. This was a victory for PS, which for the last two years has thus been free to tack between passing progressive laws with the support of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE) and the Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português, PCP), or else more conservative policies with the help of the center.
But a minority government was still too limiting for Costa, who at different phases of the pandemic saw his approval ratings soar and crash and soar again. A highly successful preemptive lockdown in March 2020 burnished the Socialist premier’s reputation as a skilled leader, but soaring infections and COVID-related deaths following that year’s Christmas festivities threatened to crash the national health service and the government with it. Costa’s redemption came in the shape of an extremely popular vaccination campaign in spring and summer 2021, but the laurels went mostly to the task force’s charismatic coordinator, Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. By fall, Costa knew he had to do something if he was to guarantee that PS could continue governing unimpeded by either the Left or the center-right opposition. He got his opportunity as parliament was called to approve a new budget for 2022.