What Can the Left Learn From Portugal’s Elections?

Article @ Novara, published 4 February 2022

Last weekend’s general election in Portugal signals what might be to come as we move into a world acclimated to the pandemic, but still dealing with its consequences. The historic win for the centre-left Socialist Party (PS), which scooped an outright majority in parliament, announces the beginning of a new political cycle: one where the polarisation of the last five years has now congealed into a few camps.

On the one side, there’s a convergence around centre-left parties that have somewhat shunned their neoliberal, early-2000s tendencies and embraced (with varying levels of enthusiasm and conviction) their socialist legacies. On the other, there’s a right divided between a classic globalised capitalist-individualist offer and a growing national-populist movement with something to say about collective identity. These political desires disclose some fairly obvious needs of the electorate, including a yearning for political accountability, calls for social improvement, and an eagerness for some sort of paradigmatic shift.

For progressives across Europe, Portugal is also a cautionary tale. The collective seats held by left-of-social-democracy parties went from 36 in 2015 to less than half of that last weekend. Organisations like the Communist Party (PCP) and the Left Bloc (BE) were de facto in government between 2015 and 2019. Today, they make up (with the help of a single MP from ecosocialist party LIVRE) the same number of lawmakers in parliament as the far-right party Chega.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and perhaps this is a piece easier to write now that the disaster has happened than during the course of the last few years, when the left’s proximity to power gave people, in Portugal and beyond, the hope of better things to come. But the results, no matter how dismal they may seem, were not totally unexpected.

This time last year, Portugal turned to the ballot box for the first time since Covid-19 reached the most-Western coast of Europe to re-elect President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa – a soft conservative turned TV pundit-celebrity – with nearly 61% of the vote. In third place came André Ventura, the chauvinist megalomaniac leading Chega, with nearly half a million votes. By contrast, the combined vote for PCP and BE was under 350,000. As I wrote for Novara Media at the time, the left was “demure” when faced with these results. Instead of vowing to bring about a better tomorrow, “no one spoke of what the future holds. No one made pledges to take on Chega. No one mentioned the fight to come.”