Pre-election report Portugal
Give me Five - New elections arrive at the right moment for Portuguese liberals

João Fernando Cotrim de Figueiredo bei einer Wahlkampfveranstaltung der Iniciativa Liberal
João Fernando Cotrim de Figueiredo bei einer Wahlkampfveranstaltung der Iniciativa Liberal © picture alliance / NurPhoto | Nuno Cruz

Portugal will hold early elections for a new parliament next Sunday. The new elections had become necessary after the Socialists (“Partido Socialista," PS), governing since 2015, failed to get the 2022 budget through parliament. The left-wing partners in the minority government, the Greens, the Left Bloc and the Communists, had called for higher government spending than envisaged in the draft budget, after having supported the Socialist Party in its fiscally responsible course in previous years. This had recieved great recognition in Europe, but the problems for the identity of the partners and the sociopolitical pressures were in the end too much for the course to be pursued.

Until recently, the favorites were the Socialists, who are once again running with Prime Minister António Costa, who were at 40 % and even flirted with an absolute majority, but have currently plummeted to 34 %. In fact, the prospect of an absolute majority is apparently a curse for the PS; only once this was enough in 2005. After a race to catch up, the conservative Partido Social Democrata, PSD, is now also at 34% to 35% and could thus surprisingly win the elections with its leading candidate Rui Rio. In addition to the classical conservative milieu, the PSD has so far also covered the liberal-conservative spectrum almost exclusively and was able to prestigiously snatch the capital of Lisbon from the Socialists in the municipal elections last September. Voter turnout will be an exciting and possibly decisive factor, as the elections fall in the middle of the 6th Covid wave in Portugal.

Liberal awakening in Portugal

The new liberal formation "Iniciativa Liberal," founded just over four years ago, and just competing in national parliamentary elections for the second time ever, could quintuple the number of its deputies from one to five. Currently, the party is polling at around 4-5%; there is no 5% threshold in Portugal.

With a campaign focused on economic issues, the Liberals are mainly winning voters from the conservative Social Democrats of the PSD. The Liberal electorate is particularly concentrated in the country's two metropolises, Lisbon and Porto, where startups and tourism are flourishing - Portugal has been trendy regarding this for some time. Entrepreneurs and the new middle class here often want a leaner state, new heads in politics, more economic dynamism and less bureaucracy. In terms of social policy, however, the Portuguese can already count themselves extremely lucky - the country on the Atlantic is considered one of the most progressive countries in the world in this area.

Corruption a central issue

An overriding issue in Portugal, however, is corruption, which has severely strained citizens' trust in the state, including the judiciary in particular. The judiciary is accused of dragging out corruption proceedings, which has resulted in neither indictments nor verdicts, not least in prominent cases. Politics, the judiciary, business or professional football - there is hardly an area in which there have not been sensational corruption scandals at the highest levels in recent years. As the last legislative initiative before the new elections, a package of anti-corruption laws was quickly passed. Experts agree, however, that there is less a lack of laws than of efficiently functioning judicial and law enforcement authorities.

End of the Portuguese Dream

This is another reason why old certainties are now finally over. For a long time, Portugal seemed immune to the Europe-wide trend toward new far-right parties, but now "Chega" ("Enough!") is here in the country on the Tejo-river. Founded in 2019, the new-right party could get up to 7%. Foreigners, especially Muslims, women's rights activists, "the corrupt politicians" - the victims of the agitation of its leader André Venturas are as predictable as they are familiar from the campaigns of the extreme right in many other countries in Europe. The former TV presenter and PSD politician plays the card of indignation about the "circumstances" perfectly and thus also reaches former voters of left-wing parties in Portugal, a fact that can also be observed elsewhere in Europe. Chega comes as a shock to many Portuguese, as the alarmist tone and aggressive rejection of social achievements do not fit in at all with the self-image of the unagitated people in southwestern Europe, who, thanks to immigration from former colonies in Africa and South America, actually exemplify diversity in everyday life without complications.

Unclear election outcome

The formation of a government will not be made any easier by Chega, and the Iniciativa Liberal will play a key role. It rejects support for the Socialists as well as any participation by Chega in a possible center-right alliance, which would not have a majority without the right-wingers. There is a threat of a "Spanization" of Portuguese politics, in which - despite a considerably greater willingness to compromise in day-to-day political business than in the case of the big neighbor - two blocs of similar size would find it difficult to achieve broadly accepted majorities in society, and the right-wing fringe could occupy a key position.

David Henneberger is Project Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom for Spain, Portugal & Italy, based in Madrid.