The new portuguese government

In the last three months Portugal went through legislative and presidential elections, with results impacting in national governance but also aiming to contribute to turn Europe away from obsessive austerity policies

On October 4th legislative elections, the ruling right-wing coalition (PàF, joining PSD and CDS), despite winning, failed to gather the majority needed for passing a government programme in parliament. A tectonic change was then unexpectedly prompted by veteran Communist Party (PC), stung by junior Bloco de Esquerda (Left Block, BE) which got more votes from people hurt by the pro-Troika governance: for the first time since 40 years of democracy, PC and BE admitted to give the second most voted Partido Socialista (PS) their parliamentary support to form an alternative to the right wing government: PS skilled negotiator António Costa did not miss the opportunity.

The swing to the left purports to redress the country from the most devastating consequences of the austerity policies and move towards a new growth and job creation strategy, combining a balanced budget with a welfare agenda and public debt reduction: the left finally understood it could not continue to allow divisions in their own camp to clear the way for the right wing destructive neo-liberal agenda.

Regretfully, that left alignment was not replicated in the presidential elections last Sunday: several candidates on the left undermined each other and facilitated a majority for the right wing. The division cut across the governing PS:  to prevent deepening internal wounds left from Costa’s ascent to leadership, the PS officially remained “neutral”. But many of its leaders actively marched for independent Sampaio da Nóvoa, a former Lisbon University dean who came second with only 22% of the votes. Former PS President Maria de Belém also run and merely collected 4,2%, behind BE Marisa Matias, who scored 3rd with 10% of the votes, again overtaking PC.

Law professor, journalist and ex-PSD leader Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, supported by the parties that formed the PàF coalition, won with 52% of the votes. On an empty programme and conducting an affectionate/bordering the populist campaign: no need for more, since the last 15 years of regular political analysis on TV, every Sunday, afforded media savvy “Professor Marcelo” unbeatable familiarity in the most remote village of the country.  He also could count on the strategic sense of his right-wing support base, ever able to unite and even swallow his jibes against former PM Passos Coelho, still President Cavaco Silva or in portraying himself as “left of the center”… All the polls consistently predicted Professor Marcelo’s victory and may have fuelled the worryingly high abstention rate.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa may come from the same political camp but will be a very different President from his stiff predecessor, Cavaco Silva, to whom in all polls the Portuguese give very low marks. On election night, the President-elected was keen to show the difference, stating his will to unite the people and give them back hope, recommitting to cooperate with the government – galling many right-wingers with the pledge to pass the State Budget just submitted to Brussels. Costa and Sousa are both well-equipped for the challenges of external representation and will be keen to articulate and push for a new orientation for Europe. In the short/medium run, Prime Minister Costa will not lose his sleep with the man to be invested Head of State next March 9th. In the long term, however, he must watch: Rebelo de Sousa is an irrepressible maverick, never missing an opportunity to strike, foes or friends.

Ana Gomes

Member of the European Parliament - Partido Socialista