The Political Response to the 2020-21 Pandemic in Portugal

  • Paul Manuel
  • 2 July 2021

The pandemic has certainly not been easy. Combined, the declaration of a national emergency, the presidential election, and the politics of geringonça, helped to shape the political response.

During the heady days of the democratic transition from 1974 to 1976, Portugal faced a national crisis. At that time, it needed both the moderating role of the president as well as the political skill of the prime minister to defeat the challenge posed by anti-democratic elements. In 2020 and 2021, Portugal faced another national crisis, and an effective response again required the moderating role of the president as well as the political skill of the prime minister.

Let’s take a quick look at three key events that helped to shape the political response to the pandemic (the declaration of a national emergency; the presidential election; the politics of geringonça), which, combined, provided some key political elements (time & space, stability and consensus-building) needed to respond to the crisis.

First Elements:  Time & Space

In response to the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Portugal, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa declared a state of emergency on March 20, 2020, to gain the required time and space to confront the fast-moving crisis. We have to go back to 1975 to find the last such declaration in Portugal, during the heated political environment following the April 25, 1974, coup d’état against the 48-year-old Salazar/Caetano regime. At that time, a variety of opposing sides, including those favoring Maoist, Cuban, Soviet, and West European political and economic models, battled over the future of Portugal. The ideological battles of the two-year period, from 1974 to 1976—called the “Revolutionary Process in Progress” [or “Processo Revolucionário em Curso” (prec)]—eventually brought the country to the brink of a civil war.

The trigger for the 1975 declaration of the national emergency was the November 25 left-wing coup attempt against Prime Minister Pinheiro de Azevedo’s moderate Sixth Provisional Government, which had been inaugurated on September 19, 1975. Shortly after the start of the coup, President Costa Gomes denounced the military action and declared a state of emergency. That action suspended civil rights; imposed a curfew from midnight to 6 a.m.; and prohibited all demonstrations and public meetings. In addition, with the permission of President Costa Gomes, Colonel Ramalho Eanes took personal control of the Armed Forces Movement (mfa), the Operational Command of the Continent (copcon), and all the Commando units.

Following the defeat of the leftist forces on November 25, copcon was disbanded; its commander, Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, who was also the hero of April 25, was dismissed from that role; and some 200 extreme left-wing military were arrested. Once all of the anti-democratic forces were removed from the political equation, and after the parliamentary and presidential elections of 1976, newly inaugurated President Ramalho Eanes and the new Socialist Prime Minister Mario Soares, with the support of moderate parliamentary leaders, helped Portugal emerge from the state of emergency and steered the country to a successful transition to democracy.

The declaration of the 1975 national emergency offers some important lessons to the current period. Namely, the national emergency declaration was both necessary and vital to the democratic transition: it gave the democratic forces the time and space required to stabilize the political situation, avoid civil war, and prepare the country for the scheduled 1976 legislative and presidential elections. Likewise, Portugal faced a grave national emergency in the form of the covid-19 pandemic in 2020. As in 1975, the Lisbon government needed to declare a national emergency to give the public health authorities the time and space they needed to stabilize the situation and to prepare the country for a national vaccination program as the sole means to come out of the pandemic. Portugal needed the moderating role of the president as well as the political skill of the prime minister to overcome the national crisis in both instances.

Second Element: Stability

There have been two presidential elections in Portugal following the declaration of a national emergency since 1976. It is interesting to note that the Portuguese overwhelmingly voted for stability in both cases, in 1976 and again in 2021.

In 1976, six months after the declaration of a national emergency in November 1975, the centrist military hero of November 25, António Ramalho Eanes, received 61.41 percent of the total vote in the presidential election, avoiding a second-round run-off.  The leftist military hero of April 25, 1974, Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, finished in a distant second place with only 16.64 percent of the vote. Ramalho Eanes enjoyed the support of the major parties, the Socialists (PS), the Social Democrats (PSD/PPS), and the conservative Social Democratic Center (CDS), who were united in their opposition to the Communists and other far-left candidates. Eanes was known for his military bearing and strong leadership style; traits deemed necessary to move Portugal away from the brink of civil at and on to a democratic future.

In 2021, Portugal decided to go ahead with the scheduled January presidential election in the midst of a national emergency, rejecting calls that it should be postponed due to the pandemic. In order to respect social distancing procedures at the polling centers, the number of polling stations were increased, provisions were made for early voting, voters appeared at polling stations in masks, and they used their own pens to mark the ballots. With the country in lockdown, the voter turnout was only at 38 percent, significantly down from other presidential elections.

Every Portuguese president since Ramalho Eanes has been reelected to a second term. That pattern continued in 2021, when another centrist presidential candidate, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, promising a steady hand, won over 60 percent of the votes. Known for his steady, affable, and easy-going leadership style, Rebelo de Sousa appears to be exactly the kind of leader the Portuguese needed during the pandemic. In a covid-19 dominated election, Rebelo de Sousa was the first presidential candidate to win all municipalities across Portugal since the transition to democracy; this strong result enhanced the stability of the national political leadership during the crisis.

Third Element: Consensus-Building

Leading up to the 2020 national emergency declaration, from 2015 to 2019, Portugal had experienced something unique in its political history, called geringonça.  Originally a pejorative term, geringonça was the name given by critics to Prime Minister Costa’s plan to form a unified leftist governing coalition. The politics of geringonça sought to break the center right/center left (psd/ps) post-1976 governing pattern in Portuguese politics; this unexpected political experiment may have also unintentionally prepared the National Assembly to be able to quickly gain consensus during the pandemic of 2020-21.

When the psd minority government collapsed in 2015, President Cavaco Silva asked the second-place finisher in the 2015 legislative elections, Socialist Party leader António Costa, to form a government. This was not an easy task for Costa because there had never been a unified ps-pcp leftist government.  António Costa, however, is a very unique Portuguese politician. A lawyer by training, he is more importantly a natural campaigner and leader, known for both his charm and his toughness. Those skills were on full display in 2015, when Costa negotiated the historic four-party left-wing government, between the Socialist Party (ps), the Greens (pev), the Left Bloc (be) and, surprisingly, the Portuguese Communist Party (pcp). This was the first time that the Socialists and the Communists ever agreed to share power in Portugal.

Given the deep historical animosities between the ps and the pcp and the somewhat strained relations between the ps  and the other far-left parties, including the Greens and the Left Bloc, political opponents quickly ridiculed this governing alliance as completely unworkable; an unstable political coalition that would quickly unravel faced with a significant challenge. They called it a geringonça, which is a Portuguese word that means a contraption, or a clever and complicated device.

And yet, under Costa’s masterful leadership, the leftist governing coalition did not divide. Geringonça not only survived but it thrived for four years. Not to be confused with the middle-of-the-road ‘problem-solvers’ caucus in the American Congress, Costa assembled a results-orientated leftist government that was committed to applying progressive solutions to pressing social and economic problems.  To that end, Costa prevailed upon both the Portuguese Communist Party and Left Bloc to set aside some of their policy disagreements, and instead work together to change the austerity measures implemented by the previous center-right government.

As such, even beyond their policy agreements, geringonça perhaps represented a new political agency in Portugal, in which consensus-building  took precedence over ideological purity, with a renewed focus on practical policy results. The legislative elections of 2019 awarded Prime Minister Costa for his skillful leadership and policy successes. Geringonça was a fascinating and innovative chapter in Portuguese politics, but its continuation was far from certain at the end of 2019.

Then, suddenly and without warning, the geringonça politics of 2015 to 2019 felt very distant with the arrival of the coronavirus in Portugal in March of 2020. The president sought to offer strong and steady leadership to a shaken country in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. Prime Minister António Costa also announced several measures designed to limit covid-19 transmission, including limits and closures of cafes, restaurants, shopping malls, schools, and universities. In addition, under Costa’s leadership, the National Assembly quickly gained consensus and approved the presidential state of emergency decree.

Arguably, the political cooperation and emphasis on progressive pragmatic policy solutions among the leftist governing coalition—which defined the geringonça period—continued to help the prime minister, who needed to secure majority support for the required emergency measures. The covid-19 pandemic produced a most interesting cross-alignment of voting in the National Assembly, in which the right and the left voted in unexpected ways. Costa managed to patch together a majority of the representatives, ranging from the left, center and right to vote in favor of the continuation of the national emergency throughout 2020 and 2021; one of the renewals of the state of emergency even during the presidential campaign in January 2021. Other essential elements to the successful national response to the pandemic included the vital economic support from the European Union to support the suffering national economy, effective social distancing measures, and a successful national vaccination program.

The pandemic of 2020-2021 has certainly not been easy. Combined, the declaration of a national emergency, the presidential election, and the politics of geringonça, helped to shape the political response to the pandemic by providing the time, space, stability and consensus-building needed to respond to the crisis.

  • Paul Manuel
  • Ph.D., I.R. Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington D.C