The road ahead for progressive politics in Portugal
Portugal's left wing alliance proved far more resilient than many predicted, but with elections due in October its future is uncertain.
The government solution found in Portugal after the 2015 legislative elections was as surprising as it was historic After finishing a relatively distant second, the centre-left Socialist Party (Partido Socialista/PS) formed a parliamentary alliance with the forces to its left, namely a Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português/PCP)-led coalition and the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda/BE). This was the first time in over 40 years of democracy that all the political parties of the left in Portugal reached an agreement at the national level, following years of political bickering that never allowed any broad consensus to emerge. Perhaps because of that, expectations were low, with many analysts at the time, including those on the left, not expecting the solution to provide long-term stability.
However, the geringonça, as this arrangement was dubbed by a right-wing Portuguese politician, and loosely translating as “odd gadget” or “contraption”, proved far more resilient than many predicted. Throughout this legislative term the arrangement has never failed to provide key parliamentary support for the centre-left PS government of António Costa. It also oversaw the ambitious reversal of many austerity-era salary and pension cuts that had been approved by the previous centre-right coalition amidst the IMF/EU bailout in 2011. Over the past four years, the minimum monthly salary has increased by 18.8% from 505 to 600 euros – the highest rise in southern Europe until the rise to power of Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE-led government in Spain in 2018. The Portuguese economy has experienced the strongest growth of the decade since the Costa government took office, which in turn contributed to unemployment falling to levels not seen since December 1991. Furthermore, the budget deficit this year has reached the lowest level the country has seen in its democratic history. Against this background, it is difficult not to label these past four years as a resounding success.
But not all is rosy. Once all the agreed cuts were passed into law, there was little more that PS and the parties to its left could agree on, and the initial honeymoon period between the parties of the left gradually gave way to a more contentious relationship. Both sides started raising the level of rhetorical hostility towards one another, while at times still praising the fruits of their cooperation. Disagreements were mostly visible in the latter part of the legislature, with elections due in October 2019, for instance when PS and the left-wing parties could not agree on crucial health sector reforms. Also, throughout the legislature, both PCP and BE protested the excessive zeal of Finance Minister and the current chair of the Eurogroup Mário Centeno, criticising the lack of public investment under his watch and calling for a relaxation of the financial targets the country had set out to achieve.
Nonetheless, looking ahead, there are a number of factors that indicate that a repeat of this solution, while not impossible, is unlikely following the next legislative election that are scheduled for October. This is for two main reasons. The first is that there are ideological and policy differences between the Communists, the Left Bloc and the Socialists, which might prevent this common platform from lasting or growing any further. The second reason is far more pragmatic and has to do with the electoral weight of each party. As the situation stands, the Socialists, the Communists and the Left Bloc may each find strong electoral reasons to not repeat the Geringonça. The Socialists and the Left Bloc are set to receive a strong electoral boost in the October election. For the Left Bloc, it may be argued that this is due to the fact that, of the two left-wing parties, BE was the most vocalin expressing its differences with PS in public. They may thus consider that the current solution no longer meets their interests and they may seek to gain cabinet positions in a future left-wing government – similarly to what Podemos is pushing for in Spain. For PS, the question is whether they can reach an absolute majority. If they come close but do not reach it, the party might be tempted to seek a coalition with only the Communists, who proved a more reliable partner during this term. Besides, PCP has the added advantage of exerting considerable influence in the country’s main trade unions. However, and after suffering heavy defeats in both the 2017 local and in this year’s European elections, the Communists will find little motivation to enter a new agreement with PS. Indeed, there are increasingly visible signs that opposition to a new deal is growing within the party.
The geringonçaproved a surprisingly resilient partnership and delivered strong social and economic results, all the while defeating the stereotype that a left-wing government cannot manage its public finances. However, the lack of agreement over a coherent political programme – beyond reversing austerity-era cuts – combined with the increased (in the case of PS and BE) or decreased (in the case of PCP) political leverage of the individual parties, casts serious doubt over whether the agreement will reach a second edition. While trying to anticipate what may happen to the future of left-wing politics in Portugal, it may be useful to look across the border to Spain – an ironic twist given that when Sánchez regained the leadership of PSOE, he hailed Portugal as an example to follow. In any case, it is likely that the left-wing parties will this time demand cabinet seats in order to support a left-wing agreement, and it is likely that for the PS, just like PSOE in Spain, this would be a step too far to keep the geringonça in place.