Have the Portuguese approved the reform program of their government?

Another post-election blog, this time about the fragile Portuguese coalition coming into life.

  • The leading government party survived the adoption of unpopular measures after receiving an anti-crisis rescue package from the Troika and won the elections.
  • The party owes its victory not only to the economic improvements but also to the occurring changes within left-wing political formations and to the indifference of Portuguese voters towards politics.
  • However, the victorious party has only been able to form a minority government and its fate remains unclear. The future government will have to actively solve ongoing economical and demographical problems and deal with the discontent of the Portuguese people.

The election winner Pedro Passos Coelho´s party has been a part of government coalition since 2011, the year when Portugal accepted an anti-crisis rescue package linked with strict austerity measures, that the government consequently had to accept, such as lowering of social benefits, decreasing government expenses on education and science, healthcare and state administration. Europe watched the elections wondering whether Passos Coelho will be the first prime minister to withstand the unpopularity of a rescue package. And indeed, his party managed to win the elections.

But does his victory signify the voters´ patience with the reforms? During the pre-election period, the economic situation in Portugal already started improving which might have also improved the voters´ opinion. In 2014, Portugal has terminated the participation in the unpopular rescue program and managed to repay part of the IMF loan in advance. The economy has started growing again (by approx. 1 %) and the unemployment rate has decreased.

However, the youth unemployment, labor market inflexibility and ongoing migration to work abroad remain significant issues. During the crisis, nearly half a million people (out of 10 million inhabitants) have left the country. The situation remains unfavorable for retirees, people depending on social benefits and state employees. Also the fields of science and research haven´t started receiving state aid yet.

Majority of the dissatisfied citizens decided not to vote at all, the election turnout was 56 %. This is a result of the predominant indifference towards politics in Portugal. The turnout in previous elections was only slightly higher than the current one. The two percent decline could have also been caused by the increase of migrants who despite their right to vote rarely come to the polls. Therefore, majority of voters were conservatives and older citizens.

For all these reasons, the Left Bloc – very similar to Greek Syriza - did not gain as many votes as the radicals in Greece but only 10.2 %. Left Bloc mostly benefits from support in South Portugal where, in some particular regions, their gain reached up to approx. 14 %. Stronger support of the Left Bloc in the South also reflects the success of their political agenda which called for tightening the conditions for providing social benefits to migrants. In the rest of the country, the anti-immigrant rhetoric was not as successful. This may be caused by the fact that up to every fourth Portuguese is considering moving to Great Britain which means that many of them deal with similar issues. Tightening up the policy on the EU level would thus harm many Portuguese as well.

The runner-up, Socialist Party, also did not win - because of its personal changes in the leadership. José Socrates, a longtime leader of the party was charged for corruption, money laundering and tax fraud. Since he was just released in September and spent ten months of the pre-election period in jail, a former mayor of Lisbon António Costa replaced him as a leader of the party. Costa, however, did not gain much popularity and didn´t even manage to win the election in his own former region. Another portion of votes was taken away by the above mentioned Left Bloc. The pre-election opinion polls showed correlation in popularity between the two parties; the increase of Left Bloc voters corresponded with the Socialist party´s decrease.

A lot of hard work is awaiting Passos Coelho´s party in the aftermath of the election. The party did not manage to form a majority government as in 2011 and the party will have to govern on unstable grounds. Their most difficult job to do will be to persuade the Portuguese who are unsatisfied with the situation in  their country not to leave - and all the Portuguese already abroad to come back home. However, it is not certain if the new government will have enough time to achieve all that.

Soňa Kukučková
Associate Research Fellow

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