What Just happened? Making Sense of the 30 January 2022 Snap Elections in Portugal

  • Paul Manuel
  • 18 February 2022

As was the case under Prime Minister José Sócrates in 2005, Prime Minister António Costa now has the chance to lead a PS majority government – a fragile majority, perhaps, but still a majority. 

In the forty-seven years since the 25 April 1974 Carnation Revolution, the snap elections of 30 January 2022, have may been the most surprising.  The ordinarily reliable public opinion surveys considerably missed the mark; the Socialist Party (PS) and the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) were supposed to be in a competitive race. They were not. As was the case under Prime Minister José Sócrates in 2005, Prime Minister António Costa now has the chance to lead a PS majority government – a fragile majority, perhaps, but still a majority.

Let’s try to unpack what happened.

First, the End of Geringonça?

Recall that back in 2015 António Costa worked to break the center right/center left (PSD/PS) post-1976 asymmetry in Portuguese politics. His solution was the formation of a unified leftist government, with the leaders of the Left Bloc and the Communist Party, Caterina Martins and Jerónimo de Sousa. Dubbed “geringonça” by its opponents—a Portuguese word that means a gadget—this experiment was successful at first, featuring reforms to reduce inequities, new job protection measures, and a new health law.  The economy performed relatively well, and both the unemployment rate and the public deficit dropped. During the COVID-19 national lockdown, the main geringonça partners tended to support the Prime Minister; or at least they did not actively oppose him, even when there were some concerns about his decisions.

The geringonça ruling coalition started to unravel after the 2019 election. The PS won 108 seats and needed an additional eight seats for a governing majority in the 230-seat chamber. This seemed possible, because the Left Bloc (BE) had won 19 seats, and the Unitary Democratic Coalition (PCP/CDU) won 12.  Surely after four years of a successful partnership, it seemed as if some type of “geringonça 2.0” could be agreed upon. And yet, this did not happen. Talks between Prime Minister Costa and his coalition partners went nowhere. Faced with no real alternative, Prime Minister Costa decided to form a PS-led minority government. The hope was that his former coalition partners would support his government, as needed, on a case-by-case basis, so that his government would not collapse.

The 2021 budget battle was just a mess and ended up changing the national political dynamic. To avoid a political crisis, Costa entreated the National Assembly to support his proposed budget. At first, the Left Bloc seemed to be on track to support the budget. Negotiations between the government and its former geringonça partners took place, but ultimately failed. Caterina Martins, the leader of the Left Bloc, decided to vote against the draft budget because, in her estimation, it did not adequately address some of her concerns around public services and the purchasing power of workers. Likewise, Jerónimo de Sousa, the leader of CDU/PCP, declared his opposition. Sensing an unexpected political opportunity with the possibility of snap elections, Rui Rio, head of the center-right PSD, also declared his opposition to the budget.

After the proposed budget was officially defeated, 117 votes to 108, with five abstentions, on 27 October 2021, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa had no real choice but to dissolve parliament and call a snap election on 30 January 2022—bringing the era of geringonça to an unceremonious end.

Second, What Could Have Happened?

Political scientists and other observers sometimes try to make sense of what happened by thinking about what did not take place, by means of a counterfactual scenario. Let us ponder two of these as we try to unpack the meaning of the 30 January 2022 snap election.

Counterfactual 1: If the Left Bloc and CDU had voted in favor of Costa’s budget, they would still be in a position of influencing public policy decisions.  If this had happened, some kind of geringonça 2.0 could still be possible. Political mistakes and miscalculations happen, and sometimes they result in big and unexpected changes; it now looks like a mistake for the geringonça partners to have voted against the budget. Perhaps one way to make sense of what happened is this: a policy of preferring a perfect budget over a somewhat less than adequate one may have set back the progressive agenda in Portugal. It also looks like Costa’s former geringonça partners overestimated their support among the people.

The results of the snap election were dire for the progressive forces in Portugal: the Left Bloc lost 14 seats, and now only have 5 members in the National Assembly; the PCP/CDU lost half of their MPs, and now has 6 remaining; PAN, a small center-left ecological party lost 3 seats.  One leftist party, Livre (Free) did manage to elect Rui Tavares, its leader, to the National Assembly—perhaps the only bit of good news that evening for the left.

Although the Left Bloc and the PCP/CDU suffered significant losses in the snap election, things may not be as bad as they appear. It is possible that they were punished by the electorate for voting against the budget. It could also be true that the fear of a possible PSD/Chega governing alliance may have caused some leftist voters to strategically abandon the Left Bloc and/or the PCP/CDU to vote for the PS; perhaps these voters will return in future elections.

Counterfactual 2: Had the PSD joined a pre-election coalition with the CDS, the final results may have been better for the right in Portugal.  The electoral results indicate that the right in Portugal is badly fragmented, mostly between the center-right PSD, the far-right Chega and the pro-free market Liberal Initiative (IL). There is no way to be sure, but a united PSD/CDS electoral coalition may have altered the final results by providing incentives for conservative voters to vote for a unified center-right government, and not fragment the conservative vote among the other options, Chega or IL. In addition, with the possibility of a PSD/Chega government off the table, leftist voters may have been less inclined in voting for PS, as a strategy to block a conservative government that may have included Chega, and instead stayed with the Left Bloc or the PCP/CDU. A diluted left vote among three or more parties could have helped a united right improve its overall position in the National Assembly.

The electoral results were a disaster for the traditional conservative party, CDS/People’s Party, who lost all their parliamentary seats for the first time since 1976 – forcing party leader Francisco Rodrigues dos Santos to resign. Additionally, although the PSD, led by Rui Rio, remains the second strongest political party in Portugal, the results of the snap election were a terrible disappointment. The PSD did not live up to the pre-election expectations of a competitive race with the PS, and even lost one seat. On the other hand, André Ventura, and his far-right party Chega, had much to celebrate. Chega performed well all over Portugal and is now the third-largest political party in Portugal– quite an achievement for a party that is only three years old.  But Chega has a long way to go if it aspires to have any influence on policy making in the future:  it only received 7.3 percent of the national vote, and 12 seats in the National Assembly, representing just 5.22 percent of the 230 seats. The Liberal Initiative also had much to celebrate: the electoral results made it the fourth largest political party in Portugal, with 5 % of the vote 8 and seats in the National Assembly.

Third, the Leadership Question.

The unexpected Socialist victory in the snap election points favorably to the leadership skills of Prime Minister Costa. One should never underestimate the power of strong leadership during a political crisis, and especially so during an existential crisis like the COVID pandemic. Costa never let the perfect get in the way of the good. He made deals and adjusted, as the situation required. Costa led a results-oriented leftist government committed to applying progressive solutions to pressing social and economic problems.  Even beyond their policy agreements, Costa’s approach to geringonça seemed to represent a new political agency in Portugal, in which compromise and bargaining took precedence over ideological purity, with a new-found focus on practical policy results. Of course, after the budget battle, the hope for a long-lasting new practical political agency among the left in Portugal now looks unlikely.

Even in defeat, Prime Minister Costa’s considerable leadership skills were on full display during the electoral campaign. He both declared that he had a clean conscience because he did everything possible to pass the budget and he also took personal responsibility for its defeat. He refused to resign and campaigned vigorously leading up to the snap election. His victory in the snap election can be seen, then, at least in part, as a vote of confidence in his skillful leadership and policy successes during geringonça.

Finally, a Return to Asymmetry?

Given the fact that over twenty political parties were competing in the election, some observers feared that the electoral result would be a fragmented and unstable government in Lisbon. The opposite took place: one might even say that the center-right/center-left (PSD/PS) post-1976 asymmetry has returned, but in a new form. Combined, the PS and the PSD received around 70 percent of the national vote and 83 percent of the total seats in parliament. The novelty is that the Socialist Party currently enjoys an absolute majority and is in a position to bring stability and security to Portugal on its own.  Prime Minister Costa does have to use his leadership skills to maintain his fragile parliamentary majority over the next four years, but he has no particular need to negotiate with the PSD or his former geringonça partners, at least for now.

We continue to live in the general fog and social anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and so it is challenging to actually make sense of the electoral results. Considering the end of geringonça, a few “what-if” scenarios, the leadership question, and a return to asymmetry, are just a few ways to try to make sense of what happened on 30 January 2022. One thing is quite clear: the snap elections would not have taken place had the budget been approved.

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