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TIAGO PETINGA (EFE)

An Electoral Earthquake: Triumph of the far right and the ebb of the left

André Freire

7 mins - 13 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

The early elections of 10 March 2024 in Portugal have become an electoral earthquake in the country’s democratic history, for four fundamental reasons. Firstly, because of the transformation of the party system from an “imperfect two-party system”, structured around two major party and ideological blocs, one on the left and the other on the right, to an effectively multi-party system, but with three blocs, the left (PS / SP- Partido Socialista, BE - Bloco de Esquerda, CDU: PCP & PEV, Partido Comunista Português, and Partido Ecologista os Verdes, LIVRE, and PAN - Pessoas, Animais e Natureza), the right (PSD - Partido Social Demócrata, CDS-PP - Centro Democrático Social - Partido Popular, and PPM - Partido Popular Monárquico, all three in a pre-electoral coalition in 2024, as in 1979 and 1980, called AD, Aliança Democrática; plus IL - Iniciativa Liberal) and the far right (CHEGA). Regarding this transformation, we must look at the following: we have to go back to the 1985 elections for the result of the two major parties to be less than 60% of the vote (50.6%); between 1987 and 2022, the two major parties were above 70% of the vote (1987-2005), or above 64%, (2009-2022). In the 2024 elections, the PSD (29.5%) and the PS (28.7%) have only 58.2% of the vote. It is clear that the imperfect two-party system is collapsing. Whether this is a temporary phenomenon or whether it is here to stay for good remains to be seen and can only be answered in subsequent elections.

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The second reason for the electoral earthquake is related to the triumph of the ultra-right, the CHEGA party, a party of the radical right/extreme right family, namely along with the French Rassemblement National (Front National until 2018) or the Spanish Vox. In fact, Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, was in Portugal to participate in CHEGA’s electoral campaign. CHEGA is also very close to former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, another relative of the extreme right. Led by André Ventura, CHEGA appeared in 2019, with 1 deputy, 12 deputies in 2022, and now 48 seats in 2024 (18.1% of the vote, 20.9% of the deputies). To get an idea of the relative political strength of the Portuguese far right in 2024, let us recall that Vox, in the November 2019 elections (the best for Vox so far), had 14.9% of the deputies (52/350), and Rassemblement National, in 2022, had 13.20% of the votes and 1.4% of the seats (8/577), an effect (in terms of conversion of votes into deputies) of the two-round majority system and the ‘cordon sanitaire’ imposed on the RN. CHEGA has a programme that challenges some fundamental principles of liberal democracies, especially in terms of fundamental rights and freedoms and the separation of powers and is characterised by a deep Euroscepticism. Because of its poor democratic pedigree, the leader of the winning list (AD) and of the largest party in the alliance, the PSD, Luís Montenegro, repeatedly declared during the election campaign that he would not ally with CHEGA to form a government or to form a parliamentary alliance to support a minority AD government. IL leader Rui Rocha has taken the same line.



This brings us to the third problem related to the electoral earthquake: governance has become very complicated. Arithmetically speaking, there are only three solutions for a government with majority support in parliament (116 out of 230 deputies): AD (79 seats) with CHEGA (48); AD with PS (77); and even an ideologically unlikely alliance between PS and CHEGA. All of these are highly improbable, the first because of the PSD leader’s refusal to ally with the ultra-right, the second because of the refusal of the leaders of the two big parties, the third because of their unnatural character. Without a left-wing majority in Parliament, AD (79 seats) is left with a minority government solution, possibly with the support of IL (8 MPs). It should be noted that there are still 4 outside MPs to be distributed, but this is not expected to challenge AD’s very narrow margin of victory over the SP. If there is no majority support for the formation of a government, in Portugal it is enough that AD’s programme is not rejected in parliament for the AD government to take office, and the PS has already said it will not do so. There remains the question of the difficult passage of the state budget. AD, possibly supported by IL, could be tempted to govern in a minority and “test” CHEGA’s ability to bring down a right-wing government. The model would be the one applied between 1985 and 1987, when a new party (PRD) with about 18% of the vote reduced the PS to about 20% of the vote, and the PSD governed in a minority until the PRD brought it down with a motion of censure (there is no constructive motion of censure in Portugal). The electorate then gave the PSD an absolute majority in 1987.

The fourth problem with the 2024 electoral earthquake is that AD’s victory is based on 29.5% of the vote and 79 seats – the same result as the PSD and CDS in 2022, and the victory of the right-wing parties with democratic pedigree (AD and IL) is mainly due to a change in the relative positions of the parties as a result of the collapse of the left-wing parties, especially the PS and CDU. In 2024, the IL had 5.1% of the vote and 8 MPs, a result also very similar to that of 2022. The big losers were first and foremost the PS, which went from 120 to 77 MPs, losing around 540,000 votes as a result of 8 years of government, very centrist governance during the absolute majority and numerous cases of executive mismanagement and suspicions of corruption. The second biggest loser was the CDU, which went from 6 to 4 MPs, having lost its last stronghold in the Alentejo, Beja, where it lost one MP, won by CHEGA. This is not a direct transfer of votes from the PCP/PEV to CHEGA: the latter’s result in 2024, compared to 2022, is mainly due to the mobilisation of abstentionists and also to the fall in support in the PS; the problem is the loss of another communist stronghold in the Alentejo, which went to CHEGA, due to the remarkable growth of this party and the relative weakening of the CDU (872 votes less compared to 2022). The communists’ continued decline has to do with their weak ability to open up to new voters, their weak support for Ukraine in its resistance to the Russian invasion, their unwillingness to sign written government agreements with the SP from 2019, and also a certain conservatism in matters of customs (they voted against the euthanasia law together with the conservative right). The BE slightly increased its votes, but given the very strong increase in voter turnout, (from 51.42% in 2022 to 66.23% in 2024), it only managed to keep the five MPs it had in 2022. The PAN also stagnated at 1 deputy, despite a slight increase in votes. On the left, only the new progressive, pro-European Green party, LIVRE, increased in votes and seats (from 1 to 4). The victory of the democratic right is therefore a “Pyrrhic victory”, given the small gap with the PS, and is mainly due to the weakening of the left. Moreover, the huge growth of the far right seriously threatens AD’s governability. Uncertain times lie ahead in Portugal.     
 
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