The headline from last weekend’s municipal elections in Portugal is the success of the Socialist Party, an exception to the demise of the European center-left. But there are deeper lessons if you look at the fine print.
João Paulo Batalha is a social activist and founding member of Transparency International Portugal
At the height of 1975’s famous “Hot Summer”, when politicians and military leaders were fighting over the direction of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, the country became a favoured destination for political tourists flocking to Lisbon from all over Western Europe to participate in the sharp left turn the country was making – occupying land for collectivization and nationalizing private industries and banks. A founding member of NATO that had been ruled by a conservative dictatorship for over 40 years, Portugal then seemed to be a liberated land of political opportunities, where the path to socialism was being built on street protests and workers committees were in charge of the economy. It was a short-lived revolutionary euphoria: the path to socialism soon came to a dead end, as a boring but functioning Parliamentary democracy was established and, in time, industries and banks were reprivatized and the country eventually joined the European Union in 1986 – a certificate of boredom if there ever was one.
Nowadays, a new generation of political tourists is again looking to Portugal. When the trend in Europe is the waning of centre-left parties – the latest victim being the SPD in Germany’s September legislative vote – here out West the Socialist party is celebrating a big win in last Sunday’s local government elections. The Socialists are in power nationally, thanks to a Parliamentary agreement with the orthodox Communist Party (probably the last of its kind left in Europe) and the Left Block (a populist left-wing fusion of former Maoist and Trotskyist parties). The PSD Social Democrats (who, despite the name, are a centre-right party aligned with the European Popular Party) took a beating on Sunday, losing nine municipalities from what had to date been their worst showing in the last local elections of 2013. In the two biggest cities, Lisbon and Porto, it came third, not even competing for the leadership. Four years ago, the PSD was leading the Government, implementing harsh austerity policies under a painful bailout package dictated by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (the infamous troika). Back then, a big loss stung, but wasn’t shocking. What was their excuse for losing even worse this time? And how to explain that the ruling party not only didn’t suffer from voter anger but managed to increase their vote and take control of over half of all local governments in Portugal – the biggest win of any one party, ever?
We should be cautious what we read into local election results. There are 308 municipalities in Portugal, each with an executive body, a legislative arm and sub-municipal parishes, all being elected. Altogether, what we had on Sunday was an amalgamation of nearly 3.700 local elections. Voters tend to choose based on the character and personality of candidates, more than on party preferences – I spoke with a family member after the poll who had voted for the right wing coalition for city hall, but had chosen the communists for the assembly. This is not unusual. Even with that caveat, can we conclude that the Socialists are still running strong, two years after entering into their unheard of coalition with the more left-wing partners, while the centre right is still hurting from their involvement in enforcing austerity policies under the troika? Yes and no. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly.
Yes, the Socialist Party remains popular. Timing is everything in politics and timing has been good to António Costa, Socialist leader and prime-minister. When he took office in late 2015, the worst of the austerity was over, the troika was on the way out and there was enough leeway to reverse course on some of the most painful measures, while maintaining some strict fiscal discipline, namely through indirect taxation and a screeching halt to public investment. Costa finished 2015’s legislative election behind the centre-right coalition but managed to form a majority with the more left-leaning parties, which had never had responsibilities supporting a Government. The arrangement, which seemed flimsy, is proving solid – its members have even proudly assimilated the pejorative term “contraption”, which had been coined by the opposition to describe the coalition. Voters seem to prefer the contraption to one-party rule and the prime-minister’s ability to walk the tight rope has now been rewarded.
Another cause for celebration: the near-extinction of dinosaurs – that’s what we call long-serving local politicians who have been bedrocks of cronyism and corruption at the local level. Of 40 “dinosaurs” running for office identified by Transparency International Portugal, only nine got elected – some of them ugly ones, but more on that later. Albeit with exceptions, voters are turning to a new generation and style of leadership, where success is no longer measured by ribbon-cutting, wasteful public works programmes or by distributing jobs and public subsidies to friends and family. The scars of austerity seem to at least have elevated the demand for accountability and a longer term view of local government.
The centre-right is in tatters – following Sunday’s bruising loss, Pedro Passos Coelho, PSD leader and former prime-minister, announced on Tuesday we won’t be seeking re-election for party leadership early next year. For better or worse, Passos Coelho reminds the voters of some tough years, when he embraced austerity and promised to “go beyond the troika” in what many viewed as a neo-liberal course that is still costing his party dearly. PSD now has the opportunity to debate the way forward, and to decide which of the their many factions (market friendly social democrats, centrist economic liberals or socially conservative neo-liberals) should take the lead going forward.
But the election results were not all about ideology. They were about an approach to politics. The Communist Party, who supports the current Government majority and has taken credit for many of the good news of the past two years, also did poorly. Almost a third of the municipalities they controlled, including some of the larger ones, most importantly in the south and in the suburbs of Lisbon, were lost, almost all of them to the socialists. So what else is at play here? Hopefully, a civic meteor: PSD was the champion of “dinosaur” candidates, as were the Communists, taking into account their relative sizes. Almost all of the municipalities the Communists lost were governed by political veterans, some of them sort of travelling mayors, who have served throughout the years in more than one municipality. This clearly had a cost as voters are increasingly fed up with politics as usual and with the same faces making the same promises. The challenge for political parties is not just fighting for voters, it is changing the way they operate. That’s why the Socialists, who were forced by circumstances to be politically innovative in governing arrangement at the national level, are still viewed as the new kids on the block.
Old-boys-club politics won’t go down without a fight. In many municipalities with established majorities elections are hardly competitive. Opposition parties – including the major ones – have difficulty recruiting strong candidates or forming competent political leadership, the result of which is a democracy of incumbents, where power is conserved simply by being there. Breaking this structure isn’t easy, and comes with two risks: the crooks stay in power, or insurgent candidates experiment with populism and culture-wars to gain traction. Two examples: in a suburb of Lisbon, a former mayor won re-election after having served time in jail for tax fraud and money laundering. In a different, heavily left-leaning suburb of the capital, the PSD candidate based his campaign on fuelling anger and resentment against minority gipsy populations, gaining a 5% percent increase in votes as a result. His contribution to the reflection under way on the centre-right was proclaimed on election night: look at what I accomplished.
Some of Europe’s political tourists come to Portugal to ask why we don’t have strong far-right, nationalist parties. It’s a complex question, but here’s part of the answer: we do. They’re just disguised as mainstream parties, where we don’t have a shortage of populist characters.
In Portugal, as in Europe, voter resentment and anger at established democratic institutions is an emotional response to the dysfunctions of power. In Portugal, as in Europe, most middle class working people feel, quite rightly, that elected politicians aren’t working for them – poor people, in turn, have given up participating in politics and elections altogether, which just leaves more open road for the capture of state institutions that degrades democracies into mere arbitration outposts for interest groups wanting a piece of the public pie.
This is a time of both risk and opportunity. The risk, which we’re seeing in Europe and elsewhere, is that small-minded politicians exploit this legitimate civic anger for personal gain. The opportunity, however, is that we may find a way out on our own, without empowering protest candidates who propose to cure our headache by shooting us in the head. It’s a longer path, but a broader one, that requires civic engagement, persistence and intelligence. If, beyond any one election, Portugal’s fragile citizenry manages to get us on this path, we’ll welcome the next generation of European political tourists to tell them how we did it.