Portugal – EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Portugal joined the EU in 1986, along with Spain, having emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s. Portugal joined the Euro on its inception.

From 1926 until 1974 Portugal was run by the Ditadura Nacional (‘National Dictatorship’) and then from 1933 Estado Novo (‘New State’) a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship under Antonio Salazar (until his resignation in 1968, two years before his death).

Salazar’s regime was highly anti-communist and anti-liberal and strongly supported Catholicism and colonialism (hence Portugal was the last of the European empires to decolonise).

Salazar’s regime conservative and nationalistic regime was not fascist per se though Salazar certainly took inspiration from fascist groups. In practice Salazar did not have much time for Hitler and maintained neutrality during WWII. Racism and anti-Semitism were not a major part of the Estado Novo’s ideology, though it was certainly very nationalistic and it maintained colonialist views towards Africa (that Portugal needed to maintain its Empire to ‘civilise’ Africans).

Portugal’s attempts to maintain its colonies led to the Portuguese Colonial War starting in 1961 and lasting until the fall of the regime. The wars were expensive and isolated Portugal diplomatically. They were unpopular locally, and students and anti-war activists fled the country to escape conscription.

A group of left-leaning military officers launched the Carnation Revolution in 1974 and overthrew the regime. Portugal held free elections for a constituent assembly in 1975.

The far-left had been very influential in the opposition to the Estado Novo, and hence the 1976 Portuguese constitution was full of references to socialism, the rights of workers and a socialist economy which severely restricted private investment and business activity. The constitution saw substantial amendment in 1982 and 1989 for this reason.

The far-left remains one of the strongest in Europe, however. Portuguese politics has been notable for a serious bout of what the French call sinitrisme, that is to say that the right is so discredited due to its apparent attachment to the Estato Novo that political parties all say that they are left-wing or centrist. So, for instance, Portugal’s main centre-right party is called the ‘Social Democratic Party’. The current Social Democratic premier claims to be neither left nor right, saying that the battle is between old and new. In reality, his party is fairly clearly centre-right.

However, apart from this, Portugal is a relatively stable democracy, albeit one that can be criticised for a certain degree of ‘particracy’, where political parties have very tight control over MPs and the political process.

However, Portugal does benefit from having a relatively homogenous population, which helps it to maintain strong political stability.

Prior to the financial crash the Portuguese economy performed unimpressively. Portugal’s deficit repeatedly breached the EU’s deficit rules of no more than 3%. The centre-right claimed to have gotten the deficit under control but on entering government the Socialists claimed the real deficit was 6.1%. It is difficult to say what the truth was as it is possible that either party manipulated the stats for their own benefit.

Portugal had high household debt, and GDP growth was the lowest in Europe in 2006. Portugal was overtaken by countries such as the Czech Republic, and Slovenia on GDP per Capita even before the crash. The Economist, declared Portugal the ‘Sick Man of Europe’, one of its favourite labels, in 2007.

Portugal saw only a moderate dip in economic growth of a fall of 2.9% of GDP in 2009, but the country was forced to nationalise one of its biggest banks, the BPN, after it became apparent that the bank was bribing its own staff to cover up its own toxic debts. Another bank, BPP went bankrupt. Portugal’s poor budgetary discipline and high public debt, over 90% of GDP pre-crash, now closing in on 130% of GDP) came to be a significant worry.

Portugal was thus forced into an EU-IMF bailout in 2011 (during the midst of a national election campaign!). The country saw GDP collapse further in 2011-3, and unemployment peaked at 17.6% in early 2013. Unemployment is now declining however, and the country is projected to return to growth in 2014, albeit with unimpressive growth of 1.2%.

The Portuguese government is widely considered to have done well in tackling public debt, though austerity has been, inevitably, highly unpopular. Portugal recently announced it will leave the bail-out rules and return to the bond market, though it says it has enough fiscal reserves to not have to borrow for another year.

The leader of the government’s intractable junior coalition partner, the People’s Party, Paulo Portas resigned from the government over further austerity in 2013, however, almost bringing down the government. In order to prevent the government’s fall, Portas was promoted from Foreign Minister to Deputy Prime Minister with oversight on economic matters.

For the time being the government remains stable.

Portugal has tended to be a pro-European country, with Eurosceptic views restricted to the far-left, and to the small People’s Party. However, as in other Eurozone bailout economies, Portugal has become more Eurosceptic since the imposition of austerity. Only Cyprus and Greece show higher pessimism about the ‘direction of the EU’ and the Portuguese are amongst the least likely to say their voice counts in the EU. That said a majority of Portuguese still support the Euro, and two thirds say they feel like citizens of the EU.

The outgoing President of the European Commission, Jose Barroso is a former Portuguese Prime Minister (from 2002-4).

Electoral System

This year, Portugal will elect 21 MEPs, down 1 from 2009.

Portugal uses a closed-list system to elect its MEPs in which voters cast their votes for party lists which are assigned seats by the broadly proportional d’Hondt formula. Seats are assigned to parties depending on their ranking on the party list.

Portugal uses a closed-list system due to a history of vote-buying and other manipulation in the First Portuguese Republic. However the system has recently been criticised as making parties too powerful and parties often head their lists with famous candidates who never intend to take their seats.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Social Democratic Party (PSD) (Running a joint list with the CDS-PP this year) European People’s Party 31.7% 8
Socialist Party (PS) Socialists and Democrats 26.5% 7
Left Bloc (BE) European United Left 10.7% 3
Democratic Unitarian Coalition (CDU) – Portuguese Communist Party & Ecologist Party ‘The Greens’ European United Left/European Green Party 10.6% 2
Democratic and Social Centre – People’s Party (CDS-PP) (Running a joint list with the PSD this year) European People’s Party 8.4% 2

Likely results

Despite the joint list of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party the two currently lag a good 4-7 points behind the Socialists in polls. The Socialists are likely to win a solid nine, or perhaps even ten seats, with the PSD and CDS-PP joint list likely to win eight or nine. If this is indeed the case, it will be a strong rebuke to the Portuguese government.

The Left Bloc has fallen back significantly from 2009 and looks likely to win just one seat, though it may be able to win a second if it has a good day.

The CDU will probably elect three MEPs.