Will 2021 be a defining year for Portuguese politics?

Will 2021 be a defining year for Portuguese politics?

As we approach January 2021, there seems to be little doubt about who will be the next Portuguese President. Nevertheless, over the past month, we have sensed the potential implications of presidential elections, as candidates announced their campaigns.

Even though an announcement by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the current President supported by the centre-right Partido Social-Democrata (PSD) and Christian-democrats Centro Democrático e Social (CDS), is pending, there are little doubt about who will be the President for the next 5 years. Poll after poll shows the current President, former law professor and former TV pundit winning by a landslide, and, just like in 2016, without there being a need for a second round. Gathering huge support amongst the rural and elder population, Marcelo is also popular amongst the urban middle class, as he is presented as the only moderate right-wing candidate. Considering how certain this contest appears to be, how interesting and meaningful could the 2021 Portuguese Presidential elections really be? 

The Players

Portuguese politics have been extremely dynamic over the past five years. Parliament seemed to be restricted to candidates of the five main parties, but in both the 2015 and 2019 Legislative elections, the number of parliamentary groups nearly doubled, following the political tendencies we have seen all over Europe. Hence, the environmentalists (PAN), the liberal wing (IL), the far-right (Chega) and the eco-socialists (Livre) all have, at least, one seat in the Portuguese Parliament. Nevertheless, only Chega seems to be gathering considerable support for upcoming elections in January, with its leader, André Ventura, recently claiming to be aiming for a second place in the presidential elections. 

On the other hand, the Left will be represented by three distinct candidates. Firstly, Marisa Matias, the far-left Bloco de Esquerda (BE) MEP, is running for the second time in a row, after finishing in third position in the 2016 Presidential elections, with 10,12% of the vote. João Ferreira, an MEP and Lisbon City Councillor, is the Communist Party (PCP) candidate. Finally, and arguably the only candidate that might have a chance of challenging Rebelo de Sousa’s status as a favourite, former diplomat and MEP Ana Gomes. Labelled by some as “populist”, Gomes has had a somewhat different career path than the other candidates, only entering the political scene in 2003. Prior to that,  she was a Socialist Party (PS) MEP from 2004 until 2019, Gomes played a relevant role in the process leading up to the independence of East Timor.

Still, the party she has been involved in for the past 18 years, PS, has yet to confirm support for her candidacy, and it seems highly unlikely it will do so. Ana Gomes, who has used her platform to raise concerns regarding financial crimes and corruption, has been extremely supportive of the idea of the Portuguese authorities cooperating with Rui Pinto, the man behind both Football Leaks and Luanda Leaks. Very critical of her own party, Gomes considers that her candidacy will “shake the party from within” and presents herself as the anti-establishment figure in these elections. 

Division or Union?

To understand why the PS is not supporting Ana Gomes’ candidacy, one has to look at the relationship the current President has had with the government over the past 4 years. Despite their ideological and political difference, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has been an enabler of António Costa’s government. Unlike other President-Prime-Minister relationships throughout Portuguese history, this has to be considered as one of the smoothest. This can be confirmed by the subtle hint put forward by Costa in May 2020, that he and Marcelo would be taking part in an event in the upcoming years, hence, “announcing” that the President would be re-elected in January 2021, even though the latter had not announced such intention. 

Despite some disagreements (such as the 2017 fires, the “Tancos” scandal and the Caixa Geral de Depósitos management appointment), the relationship seems to be healthy and the recent COVID-19 crisis seems not to have disturbed it. Costa’s unwillingness to support a candidate from within his own party seems to indicate he is content with the current state of affairs. Nevertheless, it seems ingenuous to believe that a second-term Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa would be in anyway similar to the one we have observed in the past 5 years. Firstly, the democratic right-wing does not seem to have an electorally viable alternative to the current government and Rebelo de Sousa understands that, which gives him less room to disagree with the current Prime-Minister. Without a strong and credible alternative, it seems unlikely that the sitting President would jeopardise the existent governmental stability. However, this situation could change quickly. Secondly, and according to the Portuguese Constitution, a President who serves two consecutive terms may not serve again in the next five years after that second term. Hence, history shows us that second-term President has more political freedom to make use of his constitutional powers and to follow his political preferences, which, in the case of the sitting President, are distinct from the ones of the Government. Furthermore, Rebelo de Sousa is likely to capitalise on the lack of a Socialist candidate by increasing his vote share, which would strengthen his position. 

The “Central Bloc”, a term used during the 80s to characterize the coalition between the two Portuguese major parties, the PS and the PSD, is still a reality in 2020. Nevertheless, it seems different today than how it was previously. In the 1980s, a few years after to the Portuguese Revolution, both the PS and PSD joined forces to consolidate the democratic status of the Third Portuguese Republic. Contrastingly, over the past couple of years, the electorate seems to lean more towards populist voices, such as André Ventura and Ana Gomes, who, despite being or having been affiliated with the PS and PSD , are extremely critical of those parties. 

Concluding Remarks and Predictions

Hence, and despite its predictable results, the 2021 Portuguese Presidential elections might have considerable implications for the future of the country’s political scene. On the one hand, a stronger Presidential figure, bolstered by a strong electoral majority, could jeopardise the Socialist’s governmental stability. On the other hand, the maintenance of the status quo by virtue of the “Central Bloc” would most likely strengthen the position of populist figures and polarise, even more, the Portuguese political scene, the way it has happened with other Western democracies. Finally, the alliance between the two major political forces that was so relevant for the establishment and consolidation of the Portuguese democracy, needs to reinvent itself. Despite their historical differences, both the PSD and the PS, as the representatives of the political status quo, have been converging over the years, thus giving room for the emergence of populist figures, such as André Ventura. Hence, the 2021 Presidential election results will clarify the electorate’s intentions with regards to the new political forces, as well as the type of relationship between the President and the Prime-Minister for the upcoming years, which could be highly influential for the future of Portuguese democracy.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Duarte Silva

Duarte graduated from Faculdade de Direito da Universidade de Lisboa with an LL.B before completing an LL.M in International Law from University College London (UCL). He joined Chambers and Partners as a Research Analyst, going on to work as Senior Research Analyst and Assistant Editor. Duarte is fluent in Portuguese and English and speaks Spanish to an advanced level. His main research interest is Latin American and European politics.