Have the Portuguese Socialists found the cure for electoral decline?
Support for the Socialist government is soaring on the first anniversary of its alliance with the far left in parliament
The word ‘contraption’ can be defined as “a machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe”. Across the western world, the noun became popular in the roaring interwar years. In Portugal, it is the catchword of post-bailout politics, which is characterised by the unexpected revival of the centre left.
The term was introduced in the political dictionary by one of the leaders of the right (a former journalist with fair for headlines) to belittle the parliamentary coalition between the socialists and the far left that enabled the former to oust and replace the centre right in government. The moniker encapsulated the oddity of the political agreement made between old political foes with opposing views on the euro, and pointed to its low life expectancy. Because of its neatness, it stuck. But the prophecy has failed, so far.
On its first anniversary, the ‘contraption’ is alive and kicking. Last week, the far-left parties gave their tentative support to the 2017 government’s budget proposal. The budget was designed to bring the deficit down to the lowest level in 40 years of democracy, while rolling back some of the most unpopular austerity measures adopted under the 2011-14 bailout programme. Minor reforms in areas like education, childcare and even labour and social security have also been voted and implemented. The bailout of a private bank was the only issue that caused the ‘contraption’ to wobble. On that day the right came to the rescue of the Socialist government in order to avoid the collapse of the financial system.
The prospect of the alliance lasting until the end of the parliamentary term is more real than ever. Members of the Communist party have even alluded to the possibility of joining the Socialists in government in 2019. Perhaps more surprising than the resilience and longevity the ‘contraption’ is the evolution of opinion polls. Support for the Socialist party has soared over recent months, and largely at the expense of the centre right. If there was a vote today, the Socialists would come first – and by a six-point margin. Voting intentions on the far left remain largely unchanged since the general election.
This trend is clearly at odds with the shift in patterns of voting across Europe. The Brexit referendum, the elections in Spain and the polls in France and Italy expose a growing disconnect between the centre left and the working classes. This begs the question of whether the strategy of the socialists in Portugal – making overtures to the far left and involving it in government – is a possible cure to electoral decline. It would be rash to think so.
On many counts, Portugal is an outlier in the topsy-turvy post-crisis political landscape in Europe. Unlike other countries’, Portugal’s party system has proven resilient. Independent candidates fared well in the 2013 local elections, and populist parties elected a few MEPs the following year. But in the 2015 parliamentary election, newcomers and populists were all but wiped out.
The two far-left parties – the Communists and the Left Bloc – have been around for a long time, and their history helps to explain their willingness to compromise with the Socialists. When Portugal turned on the EU for a bailout in 2011, both parties refused to sit and talk to troika officials, arguing instead for a restructuring of public debt. This radical attitude did not go down well with voters, who, months later, gave the right an absolute majority. This experience is absent in other countries.
Furthermore, one cannot assume that the resilience of the ‘contraption’ and the Socialist revival are irreversible. The political context and the growing economy have created room for reflationary policies, which helped to subdue political differences between leftwing parties. Put differently, the ‘contraption’ has worked well during good times. It is less than clear that it would resist the test of bad times; and bad times may come eventually. Many economists believe that, given the high level of public debt, a reversal of the European Central Bank’s accommodative monetary policy is all it takes to force the country back into austerity and recession, and a second bailout.
A day may come when the socialist-led Portuguese ‘contraption’ is recognised as the cure to the problems of the centre-left. For the moment, it is more prudent to think of it as another Portuguese idiosyncrasy.
Hugo Coelho is a political and financial journalist and former political correspondent for Portuguese broadsheet Diário de Notícias
This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics