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31 January 2022updated 02 Feb 2022 1:13pm

Victory puts Portuguese Socialists at forefront of Europe’s centre-left comeback

Social democrats elsewhere could learn from the deft, straightforward António Costa.

By Jeremy Cliffe

BERLIN – When António Costa became prime minister of Portugal in 2015, sceptics dismissed his government as a rickety “geringonça”, or “contraption”. His centre-left Socialist Party had come second in the election and had only gained power when a short-lived conservative government collapsed and the country’s president reluctantly turned to the the left as an alternative. To some concern at home and abroad, it relied on the support of two hard-left parties, the Communist Party and the Left Bloc, with no experience of national government. It did not look likely to last very long or enjoy much success.

Yet not only did Costa’s “geringonça” survive, but his party has now triumphed. The party rose into first place at the general election in 2019 and then advanced further at a snap election yesterday, triggered when the understanding with the two smaller parties broke down, taking won 41.7% of the vote. One debatable Maltese exception aside, this represents the best result for a western European left-of-centre party since the eruption of the eurozone crisis in late 2009.

Social democrats have been enjoying a partial comeback in Europe in recent years. All five Nordic countries now have centre-left governments. Spain’s PSOE returned to power under Pedro Sánchez in 2018. Most recently, the social democrat Olaf Scholz succeeded Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany in December at the helm of a left-liberal coalition.

Yet three things make Costa’s achievement distinct. The first is his vote share. Political fragmentation in Europe is such that none of the above-mentioned governing centre-left parties won more than 30% of the vote at their countries’ last elections. The scale of the Socialist Party’s victory puts it in a different league. Moreover, it can no longer be said that the party benefits from Portugal’s unusual lack of a populist right-wing party; yesterday the national conservative party Chega (“Enough”) rose into third place.

The second distinctive point is that most of Europe’s other governing social democratic parties benefited from voters turning away from incumbent conservatives. That explained Costa’s initial rise to power in 2015, but it does not account for why his now-incumbent party has gained vote-share at two successive elections since.

The third aspect is that he won an absolute majority of seats. “This is remarkable,” says Marina Costa Lobo, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon. “It is only the second time that the Socialist Party has managed an absolute majority, as we have had a system of proportional representation since 1976. It has been 17 years since the last one.” At an election event in Lisbon on Sunday night an ebullient Costa acknowledged the historic scale of the result: “The great challenge that I will have in this legislature is to reconcile the Portuguese to absolute majorities.”

[See also: Chart of the day: The Portuguese election results]

How did he do it? The answer lies in a combination of fortunate circumstances and capable leadership.

Like in Spain, in Portugal the central role played by the centre-left in the establishment of a post-dictatorship democracy since the 1970s makes it more of a “natural” governing force than in some other parts of western Europe. Also like in Spain, immigration has not been as inflammatory a topic in recent years as in other parts of western Europe. And unlike in Spain, Portugal has no polarising secessionist dramas in the Catalan mould. Those factors all make for a favourable backdrop.

Costa also came to power at a good moment. Portugal’s conservatives had led the country through the most painful period of the eurozone crisis. The strictures of its 2011 bailout had expired in 2014. By 2015 unemployment and the deficit were already falling and the wider European economy was recovering. Then the “contraption” turned out out to be surprisingly stable: it shielded the Socialist Party’s left flank, and the three parties managed to park disagreements on topics such as foreign policy while collaborating on measures reversing aspects of austerity.

The formal arrangement was downgraded to a case-by-case one after the 2019 election and finally broke down last autumn, when the Communists and Left Bloc opposed Costa’s budget in an apparent bid to reclaim their distinctive political identities. He moved fast to pin the fault on them. “Costa’s campaign strategy was to fully blame these parties for an artificial political crisis in the middle of a pandemic,” says Costa Lobo. “He argued for an absolute majority. The results yesterday seem to vindicate his strategy — the Left Bloc lost half its votes; the Communists lost one third of their votes.”

It is unlikely that the deal would have worked for as long as it did, or that the Socialist Party would have been the main beneficiary of its demise, were it not for the prime minister himself. Costa, 60, the son of a communist poet from Goa, cut his teeth in the “red belt” of left-leaning Lisbon suburbs before serving as mayor of the capital from 2007 to 2015. He is a charismatic and affable leader with a knack for communication. (As a local election candidate in 1993 he organised a race between a donkey and a Ferrari to highlight the problem of traffic congestion.)

Coming to power following the dramatic showdown between Greece’s radical-left Syriza government and the European institutions, he pursued a sort of economic middle way: straining at the strictures of Europe’s deflationary economic orthodoxy without the self-defeating theatrics that had emanated from Athens. His governments have increased the minimum wage, unfrozen pensions, reversed some public sector cuts and stopped privatisations, while also aggressively pursuing foreign investment.

This combination of policies — dubbed “sardine capitalism” by the commentator Michael Moran — has broadly succeeded. Notwithstanding ongoing problems of low pay and threadbare public services, especially healthcare, the fundamentals have improved: before Covid-19 struck, Portugal’s growth had averaged 2.6%, above the EU average, while unemployment had fallen to 6.5% from a peak of 16.2% in 2013. The country has come through the pandemic well thanks one of the world’s most successful vaccination programmes. About 94% of the country has had at least one dose, compared with 77% in the UK and 75% in the US.

The sense of Costa as a safe pair of hands helped especially in the latter stages of the election campaign, when the race between the Socialist Party and its conservative opponents appeared to be narrowing. That may have rallied the wider left. “Where social democratic parties are seen as the main force on the left, they can gain a lot of votes from a dynamic where people ask ‘who will govern?’, especially when they are led by a popular incumbent,” observes Tarik Abou-Chadi, an expert on social democracy at the University of Oxford. Concerns about a centre-right government informally reliant on Chega also rallied the left to the Socialists, adds Costa Lobo.

For counterparts elsewhere to draw too many direct lessons from Costa’s triumph would risk overlooking significant local factors, but it is of note that, along with Scholz, Sánchez and their Scandinavian counterparts, he has demonstrated the enduring appeal of straightforward, solid, incrementalist social democracy. It is a social democracy that peddles neither the Third Way’s uncritical embrace of market mechanisms nor the wide-eyed radicalism of the hard left; that combines business-friendly dependability with a willingness to look leftwards for definition (Costa, Sánchez and Scholz all made minimum wage increases central to their campaigns); that can build and adapt coalitions in fragmenting and re-forming political landscapes. If the wider European centre-left now wants to look to Lisbon for inspiration, it should start with those fundamental qualities.

But back to Portugal, and the more specific circumstances of Costa’s win. Will it last? One notable advantage for his incoming majority government is that it will get to distribute a €16.6 billion payment from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund (part of a total of over €45 billion allocated to Portugal, equivalent to almost a quarter of its annual GDP).

Big challenges lie ahead, however. The country remains poor by western European standards and expectations of rising living standards could be hard to meet. Corruption scandals have plagued the state and could fuel the rise of Chega unless tackled. And the Socialist Party vote, like that of many social democratic parties in Europe, is greying fast: for all its success, the party is most popular among those over 65 and least popular among those aged 18 to 24. If the party can successfully confront that looming structural crisis and rejuvenate its supporter base it will truly have earned its emerging status as a vanguard of the European social democratic comeback.

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