Success for Portugal’s Center-Right, Without Immediate Consequence in the Country’s Politics

  • Thibault Muzergues, Thibault Muzergues

On January 24, the Portuguese people were called to vote for their next president, who holds an essentially figurehead role in Portugal’s politics (although he can dissolve parliament and nominate the prime minister).  

Because of this rather non-partisan role, the campaign went quite smoothly, and the results, unsurprisingly, gave a first-round victory to the candidate supported by the opposition, center-right university professor and TV star Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, as he gathered 52% of the vote, takeing a majority in each of the country’s 18 districts.

Part of Rebelo de Sousa’s impressive success, which comes despite the center-right falling into opposition this autumn following their inability to gather an absolute majority in parliament, is to be found in his positioning as an independent intellectual, a “man of the right” capable of dialoguing with his opponents and think outside the partisan box, which allowed him to campaign on his willingness to “be the president of all the Portuguese people” and make his party affiliation a non-issue (indeed, many center-left voters voted for him).  

Another reason for this success is the division of the opposing side, with the ruling Socialist Party and Left Bloc not being able to select a single candidate, ushering in six candidates of the left (4 Socialist, 1 Left Bloc and 1 Communist) who battled it out to be Rebelo de Sousa’s main opponent, leaving enough ground for the latter to frame himself as the candidate of unity and openness. In the end,  Antonio Sampaio de Novoa, the “closest” rival, came up second with 22.9% of the vote, very far away from the president-elect, but also from the third candidate, extreme-left Marisa Matias, who gathered 10.1% of the vote.

This election will have limited consequences in Portugal. As previously mentioned, the Portuguese president does not have many powers other than those which are representative, and Rebelo de Sousa has made quite clear that he would not use his power of dissolution of parliament to overthrow the center-left-left government of Antonio Costa (despite being from different political traditions, the two politicians appreciate each other – Costa was Rebelo de Sousa’s student at the Law Faculty of Lisbon University in the 1980s).  However, the ordeal might in the long-term weaken the coalition in power in Lisbon, which is based on a compromise between the center-left Socialist Party and the extreme-left Left Bloc, Greens and Communist Party and rests on a 12-seat (out of 230) parliamentary majority.

The election might have more effect on Portugal’s neighbor, Spain.  The Spanish parliament (Cortes) is facing a similar deadlock as its Portuguese counterpart following the December 2015 elections, with the center-right Partido Popular a clear first party but unable to secure a sustainable, governing majority.  Presently, the center-left PSOE is in a key position to form the government, with a choice between a German-like grand coalition with the center-right, or a Portuguese-style alliance with the extreme left Podemos (with the difference that Podemos is much more powerful in Spain).  As PSOE readies for its congress this weekend, divisions among the local caciques have mounted.  Party leader Pedro Sánchez will probably use the precedent set by the Portuguese election (which showed the left’s weakness when not united) to gather troops around him when he decides which way he will take his party into government.

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