Professor of International Relations at the UAM
Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, President of the Portuguese Republic, will announce today, if nothing extraordinary happens, the early dissolution of the Assembly of the Republic, the Portuguese unicameral parliament, and the calling of elections, foreseeably in January 2022. Among the negative powers of Portugal’s directly elected president, the most important is undoubtedly the power to dissolve parliament. To do so, all he needs to do is hear the parties and the Council of State, and once he has done so, he can activate what in Portuguese political jargon is called “the atomic bomb”.
That this “bomb” can be used with a degree of discretion is demonstrated by the fact that President Jorge Sampaio, a Socialist who died this year, dissolved parliament in 2004 despite the fact that Prime Minister Santana Lopes, of the PSD, had an absolute majority in the chamber. Sampaio justified his decision on the grounds that the prime minister “did not have the confidence of the people”, as he was replacing his party colleague Durão Barroso, the winner of the 2002 elections. Barroso had been the front-runner in those elections, had been elected prime minister and had the majority support of the chamber, but was driven by a higher ambition to leave office to become president of the European Commission. The Portuguese felt humiliated and Sampaio followed through on his anger in the elections.
So now the novelty will not lie in the use of the presidential prerogative, since it will be used for the eighth time since the establishment of democracy in 1974, but in the reasons for and consequences of this dissolution. Portugal’s president, although a member of the centre-right opposition PSD, officiates as the neutral power of the constitutional monarchy, and since António Costa, the socialist prime minister, was unable to push through his proposed State Budget for 2022 (Orçamento do Estado) on Wednesday 27 October and, following this defeat, refused to resign, the dissolution was inevitable.
Inevitable not because there were no other possibilities on paper, but simply because the president had announced that he would do so if the budget was not approved. The proposal received 117 votes against, 108 in favour and there were five abstentions. To Rebelo de Sousa’s credit, it must be said that he tried unsuccessfully to ensure that the government’s proposal received parliamentary support. It was the first time that a draft budget had been rejected by the Portuguese parliament, which has an undoubtedly symbolic value. This is, formally, the reason for the dissolution of parliament and the call for early elections. But there is more.
For some, in Portugal and also in Spain, this circumstance puts an end to the experiment known as geringonça, that is, the botch-up, a government born out of the 2015 defeat of the Portuguese Socialist Party, which manages to topple the newly appointed government of the election winner, Passos Coelho of the PSD, in Parliament, bringing together the entire left in Parliament in its support. As I have recalled elsewhere, this was unusual in the Portuguese political system because until then political alliances were forged between the democratic parties (PS, PSD and CDS-PP), leaving out the “revolutionary” parties, opposed to liberal democracy (PCP, BE). Since an alliance between those with opposing views on democracy was unthinkable in Portugal, it seemed impossible for such an alliance to come together. Hence Paulo Portas, then leader of the CDS-PP, called this non sancto legislature agreement a botched job. Well, some see in the events just described the delayed end, almost six years, of the botched job.
However, in truth, the geringonça had stopped working long before. António Costa capitalised on the way out of the crisis that Passos Coelho had brought about to his own benefit, which allowed him to finally win the elections in the 2019 elections. If in 2015, after bringing down the Passos Coelho government, he was forced to sign electoral agreements with the PCP, the BE and the Greens, this time, with a group still in a minority, but much strengthened, as it won 22 seats compared to the previous elections – reaching 108 – he thought he could do without the burden of making a pact with such partners. The majority in parliament is 116 seats, with 230 deputies, so the idea of dispensing with legislature agreements as last time seemed prudent. Costa’s aim was to govern with a variable geometry that would mean that the eight votes needed for the government to pass its laws would be found in different places in each case (at least three parties in parliament could provide them alone, and the possibilities were greater if it agreed with two). In other words, the geringonça, the botched job, was already over in 2019 for the simple reason that Costa no longer needed it. But his partners also saw things differently now.
Alongside this strengthening of the Socialist Party, there were other relevant facts to understand what is happening these days. The 2019 elections did not go well for the parliamentary partners of the 2015 Costa government: they severely punished the Portuguese Communist Party (which ran alongside the Greens), which lost five seats; and they punished the Bloco de Esquerda, which lost many votes, although it kept its seats. In other words, the parliamentary support forged in 2015 mainly benefited Costa’s Socialist Party, but damaged its partners. But things also happened in the opposition: the right, formed by the PSD and the CDS-PP, received a severe blow in 2019 that made it impossible for them to return to government any time soon. In other words, unlike in 2015, when the right was able to form a government, in 2019 it was totally impossible. Costa’s argument that “if I don’t govern, the right will govern” had also ceased to work. For Costa at that time, the right-wing meant neoliberalism, inhumanity, cuts and savage capitalism. In other words, the revolutionary left could no longer be blamed for the possibility of a right-wing government. So it could neither count on its former partners, because it did not need them, nor could it count on them, because they were not interested. In any case, it seemed that fortune had come to Costa because he could dispense with his uncomfortable parliamentary supporters and, thanks to incipient economic growth, pursue his social agenda. But fortune, as is well known, is capricious and the miracle was short-lived due to the pandemic.
The economic crisis is back in Portugal, the tax burden is suffocating; fuel prices are unbearable; the government’s social promises for the budget are limited to modest increases in pensions and the minimum wage; its partners want to distance themselves in order to regain prominence and to do so they are rhetorically asking for much more from the government, whose hands are tied with Brussels; and the right wing, although mired in a leadership crisis in the PSD and in the CDS in the very implosion of the party, has had more than positive results in the presidential elections and a successful defeat in the local elections, and is once again dreaming of government. Then there is Chega (Enough!), the party of the populist André Ventura, one of the surprises of the 2019 elections, which thanks to its results in the presidential elections earlier this year dreams of becoming the country’s third political force and completely upsetting the Portuguese political chessboard. Fortune has turned its back on Costa and the virtuoso of impossible ways out has watched with astonishment as his second government was cut short halfway through.
In the midst of all this, some want to see what is happening in Portugal as a warning of what may happen in Spain if the left does not maintain its unity, which is somewhat embarrassing due to the candid ignorance of such pious desires; while the Portuguese live this process with the dismay of those who guess that their country is heading towards becoming what Spain is today: an ungovernable country.
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