Socialist absolute majority in Portugal completes 1 year full of wear and tear

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Socialist absolute majority in Portugal completes 1 year full of wear and tear

The first year of the Socialist Party’s surprising absolute majority in the Portuguese Parliament, won in early elections in January 2022, was marked by a succession of political scandals and the sharp decline in the popularity of Prime Minister António Costa.

The comfortable legislative advantage, which allows the approval of almost all the Executive’s plans without the need for negotiation with other parties, was not reflected in political tranquility.

In addition to scandals with high-ranking members, the government faces great social pressure with the call for strikes and protests in several sectors, including a strike by public school teachers that had great popular support.

The Socialist Party’s long period in power would also contribute significantly to erosion, says political scientist Paula Espírito Santo, a professor at the University of Lisbon. Costa has governed the country since 2015, having, before the absolute majority, the legislative support of other left-wing parties in the so-called “contraption”, an alliance hitherto unprecedented in Portugal.

“If this absolute majority had started the period of government of the current prime minister, we would be facing some freshness. In the case of Costa, he has been in office for more than seven years, a time that turned out to be erosive on the political level”, analyzes the specialist.

The last few months have been marked by a series of dismissals of high-ranking Portuguese figures, including ministers and state secretaries, amidst various scandals.

The record for the shortest time in office was held by Carla Alves, who spent just 25 hours as Secretary of Agriculture. The resignation took place after the newspaper Correio da Manhã revealed that she had bank accounts under judicial seizure due to investigations involving her husband, Américo Pereira, who is a former mayor of the municipality of Vinhais.

About a week earlier, on December 27, the newly appointed Secretary of the Treasury, Alexandra Reis, also resigned. The trigger was the disclosure that she had received compensation of €500,000 (about R$2.8 million) after leaving the board of directors of the airline TAP, which has the Portuguese State as its largest shareholder.

The company is undergoing a restructuring plan and has an injection of €3.2 billion (R$17.6 billion) from public coffers. Although provided for in the contract, the compensation –and the public discussion about whether or not the government knew about the large payment to the secretary– claimed other victims, including the then Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Housing, Pedro Nuno Santos, who resigned.

Listed as a possible candidate to succeed Costa in the leadership of the Socialist Party, Nuno Santos had already gone through a process of political frying months before, when he announced the location of a new airport for Lisbon and was, shortly afterwards, disallowed by the prime minister.

“I don’t know to what extent this is not already the result of an internal dispute for the succession of the prime minister”, ponders Francisco Pereira Coutinho, political analyst and professor of law at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, listing the search for power and influence among the socialists as another factor contributing to the crisis.

The apparent fragility of the Executive already arouses requests, in the opposition, for the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, to dissolve Parliament and call early elections. The head of state used the mechanism, dubbed the atomic bomb, in December 2021, when the then socialist minority government failed to approve the Budget.

In Espírito Santo’s assessment, this scenario should be considered as a last resort, but she recalls that the president has already stated that an absolute majority is not an “unlimited condition of power”.

Political wear and tear is reflected in opinion polls. In the most recent survey, the Socialist Party would have, in case of new elections, 27.1% of the votes – which would still be enough to win the election, but with a performance below even a simple majority.

The survey also reveals that the largest opposition party, the center-right PSD (Social Democratic Party), failed to establish itself as an alternative and appears with only 25.1% of the votes.

The more right-wing parties, however, continue to grow, supported by a critical discourse towards the socialists. The ultra-right party Chega, whose leader collects discriminatory statements against minorities, appears with 12.9% of the voting intentions.

Last weekend, during the convention that re-elected him as president of the acronym, deputy André Ventura signaled that the party will require ministries to make a future right-wing government viable. “This is the great political chessboard. For the time being, no right-wing party wants to assume this possibility of alliance with Chega”, says Paula Espírito Santo.

For Coutinho, the still unanswered question is how the right would manage to form a stable government with an Assembly of the Republic in which they will have a more robust parliamentary representation.

António Costa granted an interview to RTP, the Portuguese public television, to mark the first anniversary of the absolute majority. On the occasion, he admitted that the government “made mistakes”, but made a positive assessment of the period. The premier, however, attributed more weight to external problems. “The biggest setback we faced this year was the war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine and the brutal consequences it had in the country.”

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