Portugal’s Socialists fall short of a majority in the general election – Hopes unfulfilled

But António Costa will still head the next government

ANTÓNIO COSTA put on a brave face for his victory speech after Portugal’s general election on Sunday. The prime minister’s centre-left Socialist Party (PS) polled almost 37% of the vote to win 106 seats in parliament, 20 more than it did four years ago. But that still left the PS ten seats short of a majority.

“Voters want the current political solution to continue,” he told cheering supporters in Lisbon in the early hours of October 7th. “This time with a stronger PS.” Continuing the current solution means another four years of a minority PS government depending for its survival on the support of the radical and communist left.

This was not the solution, Mr Costa, something of a hero to Europe’s much-diminished centre-left, had campaigned for. In a thinly disguised appeal for a majority of his own, he repeatedly warned that Portugal could find itself in a similar stalemate to neighbouring Spain if the far left gained greater leverage over the mainstream PS. Spain is heading for its fourth general election in four years after fruitless coalition talks between centre-left socialists and the left-wing Podemos party.

In the event, voters neither gave Mr Costa the outright majority he wanted nor the far left any greater influence. Instead they punished the centre-right opposition, giving left-of-centre parties a combined majority of 27 in the 230-seat parliament, up from eight previously, but leaving the fragmented left to sort out another agreement for government.

Mr Costa appears to have read the public mood well in not campaigning openly for an absolute majority; too many Portuguese associate his party with abuses of power and corruption. That is likely to be little consolation, however, as he faces weeks of delicate negotiations to put together a second version of his pact with the anti-capitalist Left Bloc (BE) and the hardline Communist party (PCP).

His task has been complicated by a greater fragmentation of parliament, with three new parties taking one seat each and a small left-leaning environmentalist and animal-rights group winning four, up from one previously.

Catarina Martins, the BE’s leader, said Mr Costa could “choose stability” by negotiating a government programme with her party, or negotiate for its support “budget by budget, year by year”. The BE, which took 10% of the vote, retained its 19 seats. The PCP, smarting from the loss of five seats from its previous tally of 17 seats, has ruled out entering into a second formal pact with the PS.

Renewing a pact with the far left could prove increasingly troublesome for Mr Costa, however, as Europe braces for a global downturn amid tariff wars and the fallout from Brexit. Having come to office in late 2015 vowing to “turn the page on austerity”, he has since recast himself as a champion of fiscal discipline, promising budget surpluses to protect Portugal from any economic storm. After enduring one of the worst economic crises on the 2008-09 period, it is now recording solid economic growth.

The left-wing parties will press the PS for concessions on labour legislation, public investment, particularly in the health service, public-sector pay and state pensions. However, the PS’s victory means it needs to strike a deal with only one of those parties, rather than two as before, and survive a confidence vote. The parties on the left that had “made it their goal to prevent the PS from winning an absolute majority,” Mr Costa said, “now have a bigger responsibility to bring about a stable outcome.”

Source: Portugal’s Socialists fall short of a majority in the general election – Hopes unfulfilled

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