Portuguese General Election: Reflection

Portugal: Election, Results and Analysis

Politics is about substance, not emotions and this is where the right-wing populists eventually run out of steam

As the new government in Portugal takes office, my analysis of the Portuguese general election is not in tune with the general consensus, which is basically that the two winners were the right-wing populist party Chega, along with the (now) largest party, or coalition, by two seats in Parliament, PSD (Social Democratic Party), CDS-PP (Christian Democrats) and the tag-along PPM (Monarchists) but without a seat in Parliament. A secondary victory but on a secondary line, is the result of Livre, a Left-wing pro-EU and ecological party, which quadrupled its number of Members of Parliament from one to four.

Looking at the results, Party by party:

The largest party is in fact not a single party, but a coalition of PSD, CDS-PP and PPM, a party today without expression or any member of Parliament. On Sunday March 10, the day of the General Election, this coalition received 29.5% of the vote and around 1,8 million votes which gave it 79 seats in a Parliament of 230 (116 needed for an absolute majority); less than 30% of the share. However, in the last election, in 2022, PSD and CDS-PP together received 30.69 % of the share and around 1.7 million votes, so the share decreased. Hardly a convincing victory. The 4 seats from the emigrant communities produced 2 for Chega, and 1 each for PS and PSD.

Total, including emigrant constituencies

AD (Democratic Alliance) = PSD (Social Democrats), CDS-PP (Christian Democrats) and PPM (Monarchists) 80   

PS (Socialist Party) 78

Chega (Populist Rightist (Protest) Party) 52

Bloco de Esquerda (Left Block) 5

CDU (Communists and Greens) 4

Livre (Leftist, EU, ecological) 4

PAN (People, Animals, Nature) 1

What happens next? Practically every time the PSD gets into power, the prime minister begins his discourse with “I am going to ask the Portuguese people to make sacrifices” and there then follows a policy which challenges basic precepts of stimulation of well-being, stifling public services and decreasing wealth distribution. We might conclude that Social Democracy is the title but Social Terrorism is in fact what happens. The notion remains among many that PSD is a “nasty” party that slashes pensions, reduces salaries (unconstitutional?) and cuts public holidays, which is indeed what happened last time around. Until today, PSD has been associated with a total absence of empathy with or understanding of the Portuguese people, in a country where food prices are higher than in countries with far higher incomes and where the average salary is not enough to rent a house, much less buy one. Young people find getting a job with a full contract very difficult and so cannot get a bank loan to get on the housing ladder, or financing to buy a car. 

This Party is very good at making promises and appearing as the standard-bearer of a new-found prosperity, promising to improve the lot of the beleaguered but resilient people, used to sacrifice after sacrifice and coming together in undocumented social solidarity actions. But actions speak louder than words and given that the PSD has been in government or the main opposition party since the April 25th Revolution of 1975, half a century ago, what exactly has it done to improve Portugal’s results when compared with other members of the European Union (GDP currently 15th out of 27 member states and having been surpassed already by countries that joined after its adhesion in 1986; GDP per capita 19th out of 27)?

And now for the Socialist Party

The party previously in government, PS (Socialist Party) received 28.7% of the share and 1,75 million votes in the election, against 2.3 million votes and a share of 41.37% in 2022, giving it 77 MPs (plus one from the emigrants). A clear decrease not helped by issues with teachers in schools, 44,000 pupils without a full delivery of the timetable, problems in the health service with difficulties in arranging appointments and emergency departments closed at certain times, apart from discontent among the police, teachers and other public sector workers. Hardly a positive business card but the social cost of a government by this party is much less dramatic than that of PSD and in general terms, let us be honest, the handling of the Covid crisis was very well performed and ably handled by Prime Minister António Costa, working closely with President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

Now we get to another point that has not been raised. A government programme in Portugal is four years, not two and the reason why the PS government fell was because of an accusation against the outgoing Prime Minister, António Costa, insinuating that he may have been involved in alleged trafficking of influences (?) during a business deal. “May have been”, unsubstantiated, and alleged, is under the law nothing more than an unsubstantiated postulation, devoid of substance until it reaches and passes through a court of law and appeals. Nevertheless, António Costa, declaring that he had done nothing wrong, presented his resignation to the President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, stating that the Prime Minister must always be above any insinuation of suspicion; the President accepted it and the government fell. But judging a programme half-way through leads to a protest vote rather than a decision based on substance.

Emotional politics, the rise of Populism

Now we come to the phenomenon which has keyboards smoking under fiery and flying fingers, the result of Chega, a right-wing, nationalistic populist party led by an able communicator, André Ventura, a professor of law, former football pundit and councillor (with PSD) whose party CHEGA, founded in 2019, (its name meaning “Enough”  or “It arrives”) received 50 MPs, 18.1% of the vote and 1.1 million ballots cast.

Those on the political left may complain, others in the centre may say they are frightened but the fact of the matter is that under a system which labels itself a parliamentary democracy, people vote and are free to vote for whoever they choose. There is no point in complaining about it. Yet what is Chega exactly? A protest vote against the Establishment (only three parties have been in government or the main opposition since 1974, namely PS, PSD and CDS-PP), a party which is Left-phobic and so votes Right, and basically a one-man show. Remove the leader and the party implodes, and there go the votes with the soundbites.

The question with Chega, and what explains its meteoric rise, is that it is a party which thrives on emotion, rather than substance. It is not tried and tested because it only appeared in 2019, almost exactly five years ago. It is a perfect Portuguese example of right-wing populism, of the sort we have already seen in Brazil with Bolsonaro, in the USA with Trump and in the UK with Johnson. The way it works is like this…

You manage to create a wave of emotion through bringing local issues into national Parliamentary elections, then make a blanket attack on the entire Establishment, accusing all the established political parties of being responsible for all the existing ills and pin-pointing any mistakes, cases of corruption and fanning discontent. At the same time you make sweeping statements demonising the Left and insinuating that along with the Establishment, the Left is some kind of pervasive evil. No substance, of course.

A classic example was presented to me when I was approached by a Chega supporter, during COVID: “Where are all the Covid cases? In hospital! Where are all the doctors and nurses? In hospital! Right! So fire all the doctors and nurses, close the hospitals and finish with this (****) at a stroke! Easy!”

Politics is substance, not emotions or vapid promises

However, politics is about substance, it is not about emotions. It is easier to point the finger, yet this is not the same as presenting results through work done. This comes after being elected into government and Chega has not managed to do that.

It has increased its share, dramatically but it remains to be seen at which point it reaches its Peter’s Principle and slides back to being inconsequential; however, in a parliamentary democracy people have the right to choose whichever party they consider best and this must be respected.

Now for the Left

PAN, accepted by some as a Leftist Party. People, Animais and Nature. In fact for the (wo)man on the street it is an alternative to PEV, Os Verdes, meaning The Greens, part of the coalition with PCP, (CDU), and PAN retains its single MP. While not managing to form a parliamentary group, it has increased its share from 1,58% to 1,9% and its vote from 88,000 to 118,000.

It must not be forgotten that if we exclude PAN from the Left, the other three parties with representation in parliament, namely Bloco de Esquerda (4,5%, 5 MPs), CDU (PCP + PEV, 3,3%, 4 MPs) and Livre (3,3%, 4), obtain 11,1% of the vote and nearly 700,000 votes. That is 700,000 votes to the Left of the Socialist Party, which is not exactly Leftist, just an alternative Right-wing solution and a little less Nasty than PSD has been until today. Perhaps PSD will change under its new Prime Minister, Luis Montenegro. Pull up a chair, wait and see...

And now?

The people have voted and whatever the opinion or persuasion, the result must be respected. The Left does not want another Rightist government, especially after the horrors of the last PSD-led administration. That time around, PSD blamed PS for the country’s ills but forgot that the international crises were not centred around Lisbon.

It still remains to be seen whether the Right of Centre can produce the magic potion which will awaken Portugal to fulfil its potential. The fact of the matter is, these parties all represent a reduction of the State in the economic equation, yet the reality shows us that while this may work on an Excel sheet, in practice it creates social tension, collapsing public services, discontent and a destruction of conditions which create well-being.

It appears that this is a difficult message to communicate to the masses, which act like a horse blinkered between two stalls, banging its head one side (PS) and the other (PSD) while under its legs, the quagmire of filth it is standing in gets higher and higher. The new Prime Minister, Luis Montenegro, promises to increase the prosperity of the Portuguese within a few years. Watch this space.

My prediction is that if this government, with the slimmest of working minorities, lasts four years, the indicators will show that in GDP Portugal has slipped back further towards the bottom of the 27 member states, that salaries and prices are even more out of sync, that buying a home, getting a hospital or medical appointment, finding a place in a pre-school, or a 100% delivery of lessons from primary school upwards, will remain a challenge, that families will have to budget carefully to send a member to University, that getting a full-term contract in a job will remain a Quixotic chimera.

The magic solution

The magic solution does not lie in finding areas of discontent and capitalising on them through sexy soundbites, but rather, in an understanding of what Portugal is and who the Portuguese are. I would wager that very few of those making decisions have any idea what the country is or who the people are. The only time they speak to the People is when they want votes, then you will find them outside shopping centres with stupid expressions on their faces pretending to be enjoying the handshakes.

They have no idea what it is like trying to find a maternity hospital open to deliver the baby, no idea what it is like trying to find a creche, or paying for a nanny because there isn’t a creche, or finding a place in a primary school, or having the full curriculum delivered at school, or trying to find an affordable rented home to bring up the family, or trying to get a mortgage to buy one, or getting a loan to buy a car, especially if they are working on Green receipts, a social terrorist scourge which flagellates entire families and ruins their futures; they have no idea what it is like trying to afford dental treatment, or getting an appointment on the National Health System, or getting a family doctor on the same system, or keeping a job to pay the bills; they have no idea what it is like sending a child to middle or secondary school and having the full curriculum delivered, then sending the child to University; they have no idea what it is like stretching budgets to pay the exorbitant bills for utilities, or stretching a miserable pension which hardly pays the supermarket bills after a life of hard work and certainly will not, in many cases, pay for all the medicines the doctor has prescribed.

Their answer to this would be the ubiquitous sweep-it-under-the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist “Well if you don’t like it, clear off somewhere else”, one of the most puerile and shallow responses to constructive criticism one could encounter anywhere on Earth.

So the reality is that the Portuguese education system does, despite its paltry resources, a Herculean job in producing excellent human material for the work market (compare Portuguese Erasmus students with their peers and they will invariably come out top) and one third of these go abroad to work, where they are taken up like hot cakes and start families elsewhere. “Oh they’ll come back” says the Establishment. Of course they won’t, they have their social security payments abroad, their families abroad, their work abroad and they will stay abroad to be near their grandchildren.

This will not be different with the PS(D), either side of that coin, unless something fundamentally changes, because those parties have governed Portugal for half a century and look what they have done. In European terms, Portugal is not a small country, not at all. In fact it has one of the largest Exclusive Economic Zones in Europe and has huge potential with its brotherhood of nations, the CPLP (Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal São Tome and Principe Isles and East Timor).

The Portuguese political class needs to stop looking at its navel, stop being intellectually retentive, stop being Sebastianist (waiting for a saviour to appear through the mists of the River Tagus), stop being Lisbon-centric and start looking around seeing how other countries have managed to surpass Portugal in just a few years. To put it in a nutshell, to learn something with others. Try opening a business and document every step of the way, including telephone numbers which no longer exist, telephones which are never answered, a telephone call which is answered and receives the reply "No, no, no, no, no, no, no..." then disconnects, differing information from the same service, insolence from those attending the public (though this is improving), a system which continues to insist on people wasting time going to a physical place and waiting, or having a child sent to a department in the Azores Isles and its mother to Braga to legalise the family when they are living in Faro, for instance.

Modernisation, in a word, you know, make a telephone call, get an answer, the right one, not a wild goose chase, from a person who is not sociophobic, send an email, get it answered (today practically impossible unless you use the Hinchey Formula, which is keep sending the same email daily numbering the emails #2,#3,#4 etc and beginning with "I have not yet had the courtesy of a reply to my (784) previous emails sent since 2023.09.08"). Modernisation does not mean losing values and Portugal of these has many.

It is safe, the weather is great, people are civilised and welcoming, English is spoken widely, and very well, and for someone with a decent salary, it is Paradise on Earth. There is a lot to see, every village practically has a different sweet, or cake, or wine, every city has massive cultural heritage and it is extremely diversified. You would need more than a lifetime to get to know every corner of Portugal. Unfortunately it is nowhere near a Paradise not for many of the Portuguese. Why? For the reasons mentioned above.

The answer, my friends, is a responsible and competent Left but until the Left in Portugal comes together, it will never be in any position to implement, a solution. The reason why is because it is unable to communicate a concerted strategy, basically because none exists and it is collectively unable to dispel the myth that Left if Dangerous (something that comes from the Old Testament if you read the Book of Chronicles, 2). It might not be what people wish to hear, and it may annoy people that it is said, but this, ladies and gentlemen, is the raw truth. Sometimes it hurts. I have been saying this for decades and here I am saying the same thing again. Let those who abhor what I say tell me I am wrong.

Table of results  Seats % vote  Number of ballots

AD 80  29,5%   1,8 m

PS   78   28,7%   1,75 m

Chega  50   18,1%   1.1m

IL 8   5,1%   312,000

BE  5   4,5%   274,000

CDU 4   3,3%   202,000

Livre 4   3,3%   199,000

PAN 1   1,9%   118,000

Previous elections  (2022) Seats  % vote   Number of ballots

PS  120   41,37   2,3 million

PSD 77     29,09   1,5 million

Chega 12     7,1     399,000

IL 8     4,9     273,000

Bloco 5     4,4     244,000

CDU 6     4,3     239,000

PAN 1     1,58     88,000

Livre 1     1,28     71,000


Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey can be reached at [email protected]

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey