After the fall of Portugal’s government, led by Pedro Passos Coelho, several commentators have suggested the country could make a clean break from austerity under a new left-wing administration fronted by António Costa. Patrícia Calca writes that while the exact makeup of the new government remains to be seen, it is unlikely Portugal will pursue a radically different economic course. She argues that in light of the unprecedented nature of the events that led to the government’s fall, the key challenge will be to ensure that all political actors respect the constitution and put the interests of the country ahead of their party.

On 10 November, the Portuguese government’s programme was defeated in a vote in the country’s parliament, with 123 members of parliament voting in favour of a ‘rejection motion’ and 107 voting against. The vote, which effectively removes the government from power, ensures Portugal’s President, Aníbal António Cavaco Silva, will have to nominate another administration.

When the initial results from Portugal’s last parliamentary election appeared on television screens on the evening of 4 October, it was hard to imagine that the country would still be facing such uncertainty today. Over these last few weeks, Portugal’s day-to-day life has continued as before, but amid a different atmosphere. Now, everyone is discussing politics, constitutional principles, and how institutional actors should behave. In a country where levels of pessimism and discontent are high, the political engagement that has been generated by the fallout from the election has undoubtedly come as a surprise.

Portugal is now in an unprecedented situation and is confronting a political challenge that will not only affect the daily lives of citizens, but will also test the democratic foundations of the state. The President is the actor charged with engineering a government in accordance with the election results, but the Portuguese constitution is fairly limited in its guidance on how this should be done in practice. The President lacks the power to demand new elections and there is an urgent need for a new state budget.

The situation produced by the elections was a delicate one, with the coalition of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and CDS-People’s Party (CDS-PP) winning the contest but falling short of a majority. As expected, the largest party (PSD) was invited by the President to form the government. Usually, in this situation, the coalition would form a minority government and, even with the subsequent burden of having to negotiate support in parliament, would manage to survive.

This time, however, was different: for the first time in the democratic history of Portugal, the main left-wing parties in parliament decided to work together to put a Socialist Party (PS) government in power. Now the key question is what form the new government will take.

Three options

There are essentially three possible scenarios. First, a government led by the PS could be nominated with the support of the other left-wing parties that have parliamentary representation: Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) which participates in an electoral coalition with the Ecologist Party “The Greens”. Combined these parties have an absolute majority in parliament. Second, the President could nominate a right-wing government on an interim basis, with limited powers and constrained by parliament.

Finally, there is in principle the option of a government of presidential initiative: that is, a government composed of individuals indicated by the President. However, while this latter option is not expressly forbidden in the constitution, the chances of it occurring are virtually zero in practice given the parliamentary arithmetic required to approve it.

All of these scenarios have constraints, some more so than others. The main issue with the first option is that even though a government relying on the parties of the left would have a majority in parliament, it would likely be weak given the diverse views among these parties. The second scenario would entail a long period (several months) with an interim government until a new election could be held. In practice this would leave the country without a functioning government until well into 2016.This is arguably the scenario with the most potential instability.

If the PS comes to power, as many expect, some party figures have indicated that the policies adopted by the government will not violate the European commitments Portugal has already made. This is one reason why the other left-wing parties do not want to be in office in a formal coalition, but would support a minority PS government instead. It may therefore be expected that despite the dramatic nature of the change of government, Portugal will nevertheless maintain its path of seeking international compromises.

A PS minority government supported by a majority in parliament would likely be, at the moment, the least problematic option for the country. Yet Portugal’s biggest challenge is perhaps to ensure that all political actors respect the constitution and that all politicians put the interests of the country ahead of their party. The rest is simply democracy as usual.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: K. H. Reichert (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

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About the author

Patrícia Calca – University of Lisbon
Patrícia Calca is a political scientist based in the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.

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