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Portugal - General Elections

General Elections in Portugal,
27th September 2009

General Elections in Portugal,
27th September 2009

25/08/2009 - Analysis

On 27th June last Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva (Social Democratic Party, PSD) announced his choice of 27th September as the date for the next general elections. Most of the political parties consulted on the issue approved this date. On 26th June José Socrates' government (Socialist Party, PS), announced that local elections would take place on 11th October. Only the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition party wanted both elections to take place on the same day.

The Portuguese Political System

The Portuguese parliament is monocameral. Its only Chamber, the Assembly of the Republic, comprises 230 members elected for 4 years by a proportional vote within 20 constituencies.

At present 5 political parties are represented in Parliament:
- the Socialist Party (PS) led by Prime Minister Jose Socrates. Founded in 1973 the party holds the absolute majority in Parliament with 121 seats;
- the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the main opposition party created in 1974 and led by former Finance Minister, Manuela Ferreira Leite for the past year, has 75 seats;
- the People's Party, formerly the Social Democratic Centre/People's Party (CDS/PP), an opposition member, is led by Paulo Portas and holds 12 seats;
- the Communist Party (PCP) led by Jeronimo de Sousa has 14 seats;
- the Left Bloc (BE), led by Francisco Louca has the support of young, urban voters notably those living in Lisbon and Porto. It has eight seats.

The Portuguese also elect their President by universal suffrage every 5 years. Anibal Cavaco Silva (PSD) was elected on 22nd January 2006 in the 1st round with 50.59% of the vote thereby becoming the 1st Liberal President since the Carnation Revolution on 25th April 1974 which marked the fall of the dictatorship established by Antonio Oliveira Salazar in 1932. He succeeded José Sampaio (PS).

Election Issues

During this term in office, which is now coming to an end, Prime Minister Jose Socrates' government survived 4 motions of censure; the most recent was launched on 17th June, just 3 months before the general elections. In this heavy election year for Portugal (European, general and local) and in a time of international economic crisis the government had to suspend its severity policy and introduce social measures.

In the ilk of his Spanish neighbour, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (Socialist Workers' Party, PSOE) Jose Socrates has helped Portuguese society move forwards over the last 4 years. On 11th February 2007 59.25% of the electorate voted in support of decriminalising abortion in a government organised referendum. Until that date abortion was forbidden and was punishable, except in the event of rape, danger to the life of the mother or malformation of the fœtus, by prison sentences ranging up to 3 years for women who had resorted to it. On 8th March 2007 Parliament approved the decriminalization of abortion.
The ban on homosexual marriage is another of the Head of government's battles. Last January Jose Socrates promised to include homosexual marriage in his electoral programme during the general elections on 27th September. "I believe that we shall make people happier, even if it is a question of a minority, we shall all be happier," declared the Prime Minister in Parliament last February. "Since certain countries have already taken this step I don't see why we shouldn't do it also. Once we have put an end to this discrimination all of society will be better, not just for the ones who are the focus of the discrimination itself," declared the Prime Minister to Parliament last February. In October 2008 Parliament rejected 2 draft proposals authorizing homosexual marriage (17 MPs approved it). The opposition parties and the Socialist Party which believes that Portuguese society is "not yet mature" with regard to this issue voted against. For its part the Episcopal Conference called on Christian voters to respect the moral values it defends, notably its opposition to homosexual marriage, during the general elections. "The Christian voter must not betray his conscience when voting. The political choices of Catholics must be in line with the values of the Bible," reads an article published at the end of April by the Episcopal Conference.
Again in the social domain Jose Socrates pushed through a law in terms of divorce in which one spouse can request divorce without the consent of one of the other - it came into application in December 2008.

The Prime Minister who was forecast to win by the polls until the European elections on 7th June last, is fighting for another mandate as head of government. When he took office in February 2005 he immediately applied an austerity policy undertaking cuts in some social budgets, continuing privatisations and bringing in unpopular measures such as an increase in VAT, the freezing of civil servants' careers and raising the age of retirement. The Socialist government had achieved part of its goal i.e. balancing public finance by reducing public deficit that was higher than 6% in 2005 down to 2.2% in 2008. The international economic crisis unfortunately destroyed almost all of the hard work undertaken by the Portuguese over the last three years. For the time being the desire to reduce the public deficit has been put on hold. According to economists' forecasts the figure should remain stable in 2009 i.e. below 3% therefore in line with the demands of the European Stability and Growth Pact.

The Electoral Campaign

Socio-economic issues are at the heart of debate. GDP growth equal to 0% in 2008 is due to be in the negative this year (-4.1%) as well as in 2010 (-0.3%). The National Statistics Institute indicated on 13th August that contrary to forecasts and after 3 consecutive quarters of decline Portugal recorded slight growth in the 2nd quarter of 2009 (+0.3%). "Portugal is of the first countries to emerge from economic recession," declared Prime Minister Jose Socrates.
Economic analysts are however concerned about the long term, since the country is suffering from high public deficits, heavy debts and it is also not very competitive. "For the period 2011-2017 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is forecasting growth of 1.5% well below the EU average," says Jeremy Lawson, an economist responsible for Portugal within the OECD. Unemployment has reached 9.3%, its highest rate since 1987 whilst social protection is notoriously inadequate and employment particularly unstable. Portugal suffers from competition on the part of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe in which companies are much closer to their markets (Portugal is at a disadvantage because of its geographical situation) and where labour is more qualified. Less than a quarter of Portuguese have never completed a secondary level of education against a 2/3 average in the EU.

The Socialist Party attempted to take political initiative by presenting its electoral programme at the beginning of August – this includes several social measures (help for the disabled and families living below the poverty line, reduction by half of the minimum wage required for an immigrant to hold a resident's permit) and an increase in public spending in infrastructure projects (high speed trains and airports). The most notable measure is the grant of unemployment benefit to 25,000 people who are at present unemployed and who benefit from no social aid (mostly young people). The application of the Socialist Party's programme is however struggling due to the scale of the decline in public finances.

The Social Democratic Party preferred to postpone the presentation of its electoral programme until September. However it has already indicated that it wanted to slow up on government spending so that debts would not increase. Prime Minister Jose Socrates commented ironically on the fact that his rival had no programme just one month from the election and qualified its message as "sad and miserable". He declared that the opposition was dominated by "pessimism, resignation and paralysis". "With regard to the future they have nothing to say to the Portuguese," he declared. The head of government finally accused the "conservative right and the radical left" of having one goal only – "attacking the Socialist Party". The issue of its future government alliance(s) is however the focus of debate for the Socialist Party which if victorious in the general elections on 27th September will have to find partners with whom it can form a government. The Portuguese left is divided and the Communist Party and the Left Bloc do not seem enthusiastic about working with the Socialist Party in office at present.

Against all expectations and contrary to the forecasts of all of the pollsters the Social Democratic Party won the European elections on 7th June last with 31.71% of the vote (8 seats in the Parliament in Strasbourg), whilst the Socialist Party, forecast by all the polls to win just before the election won 26.58% of the vote (7 seats). The People's Party which joined forces with the Social Democratic Party during the previous European election on 13th June 2004 won 8.37% of the vote (2 seats). These elections were marked by the rise of the far left: the Communist Party/Greens Coalition won 10.7% of the vote and 3 seats and the Left Bloc won 10.65% of the vote and 2 seats.

After the announcement of the results which it qualified as "well below expectation", Prime Minister Jose Socrates indicated that this "made the task even more difficult for the general elections". He did however refuse to foresee any modification in his government's policy. "It is not my style to adapt my policy according to the problems. We shall stick to our targets and maintain our strategy," he indicated. "It is Jose Socrates' personal defeat," declared the lead PSD candidate in the European elections, Paulo Rangel adding that "this victory is the first in a new electoral series." "These European elections were the lead up and the ruling party cannot ignore the extremely large share taken up by the protest vote," stressed political analyst Manuel Meirinho, saying that "the Socialist Party must admit the change."

The Socialist Party suffered a degree of tension in the month preceding the European election. Some of its members denounced the party's swing to the right and its poor management of social conflicts, notably those that affected education and healthcare, sectors that rally many Socialist supporters. Prime Minister Jose Socrates' support of a second mandate on the part of Jose Manuel Barroso (former Prime Minister of Portugal from 2002 to 2004 and PSD member) as head of the European Commission was also condemned by many Socialists and damaged the clarity of the Socialist Party's message and electoral campaign. Contrary to the head of government, the leading Socialist candidate in the European elections, Vital Moreira indicated if the European Socialists won he would support the candidature that should "logically" represent the European Socialist Party (PSE). "The Socialist Party has shot itself in the foot. This decision (supporting Barroso) is extraordinarily irresponsible and will encourage abstention," declared former President of the Republic (1986-1996) and founder of the Socialist Party, Mario Soares who added, "it is incredible that a Socialist Party could support an EPP representative and especially Jose Manuel Barroso, a friend of George Bush and who hosted the 'Summit of Shame' in the Azores which in 2002, decided on the Iraq War against the overwhelming will of the majority of the population."

"It will not be easy for the Socialists to win the general elections. They now know that they will not be able to win the absolute majority," declared the editorialist of the radio station Renascenca, Francisco Sarsfield Cabral. However one election is not the same as another and a high abstention rate (62.97%) confused somewhat the reading of the European election results. Jose Manuel Fernandes, director of the daily Publico maintains that the June election "was an opportunity to pass a message without paying the price." The Portuguese general elections on 27th September will probably not be a simple replica of the European vote in June.

Source : Electoral Commission of Portugal
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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