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Portugal's snap election: Why now? Who leads the polls? Why does it matter?

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By David Mac Dougall and Francisco Marques
A young woman leaves a voting booth at a polling station for early voters in Portugal's general election, at the University of Lisbon, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022
A young woman leaves a voting booth at a polling station for early voters in Portugal's general election, at the University of Lisbon, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Portugal is holding snap elections on Sunday after the ruling Socialist Party, in power since 2015, failed to get its budget through parliament.

It came after their traditional allies on the left -- the Communists (PCP), Greens (PEV) and the Left Bloc (BE) -- declined to support it because the spending commitments were not ambitious enough.

"In late 2021 the annual budget was rejected by the radical left which usually supported the socialist minority government which was in office for its second legislative term at that time," Elisabetta De Giorgi, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Trieste in Italy and an expert on Portuguese politics, told Euronews.

Perhaps ironically the main opposition, the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) had initially supported Prime Minister António Costa over the budget in the interests of pandemic national unity, but with that support withdrawn -- and faced with an impasse on the left -- the President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, ordered the dissolution of parliament and elections were scheduled.

The elections are scheduled for 30 January, but to avoid large gatherings, the possibility to vote in advance opened on 23 January.

There are 230 seats in parliament up for election.

Credit: AP
Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU Summit at the European Council building in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021Credit: AP

What are the latest polls indicating?

The latest polling in Portugal shows the Socialist Party in the lead with 38% of the vote share - a figure which has held steady since last November.

The opposition Social Democrats are up a couple of percentage points with 32% support in the survey by the Catolica University, which was published last Friday.

Professor De Giorgi notes that any support the Socialist Party might be losing is not, however, going to other left-wing parties, but to the moderate centre-right Social Democrats.

"This is another exceptional thing about Portugal. In many Southern European countries the mainstream parties lost popularity in the last years, but in Portugal, the competition has kept being between the two mainstream parties in all these years, since the beginning of the financial crisis," she said.

The Communist-Greens alliance and Left Bloc are currently polling at 6% each; while the Liberal Initiative party and the far-right Chega party (each currently with one member of parliament) are polling around 5% each.

There are 21 different parties vying for seats in parliament.

Why should the rest of Europe be interested in these elections?

Professor De Giorgi says the main reason the rest of Europe - and particularly in the south - should be paying attention to politics in Portugal is because of how stable it is in political terms.

"I know that it seems weird because they're having early elections but politically they've been the most stable country in southern Europe since the economic crisis.

"They're the only country where the two biggest mainstream parties continued to be the two competitors in the election.

"They are the only country in the region where no new challengers either from the right or from the left actually challenged the government."

One other reason for the relative entrenchment of the two biggest parties, says Professor De Giorgi, is declining voter turnout. In 2015 it was 55.8% but in 2019 turnout had dropped to 48.6%.

Are there any wildcards?

Professor De Giorgi says although the far-right Chega party (which translates as "Enough" in English) has gained momentum in recent years, and could yet become the third-largest party in parliament, they've not really gained a bigger foothold in Portuguese politics unlike some of the other new, populist parties across southern Europe.

"It is the first time in the history of Portugal that the radical right is in parliament, and competing in another election. And also the first time that the radical right could end up in third position at the election."

As to whether they could form an alliance with the larger centre-right Social Democrats and create a working majority in parliament, Professor De Giorgi says while she doesn't rule it out completely, she doesn't think it is a particularly likely scenario.

"They [Chega party] grew a lot. They made an arrangement with the centre-right party at local government level in the Azores, in the islands, but it is not really expected at a national level that the PSD will make any sort of deal with the radical right."

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