Portugal´s shortest-lived Government

The XX Constitutional Government of Portugal lasted just twelve days. A leftist’s coalition has brought together the socialists, the radical left and the communists, only united by their wish to battle austerity. Português.

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Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano Francesc Badia i Dalmases
21 November 2015

Lisbon, Portugal. Flickr: some rights reserved

In the aftermath of an election won by the conservatives (38.6%) and in an astonishing and smart move, Antonio Costa, the current leader of the Socialist Party (32.3%), managed to bring about two separate agreements with both the communists (8.3%) and the radical left (10.2%). This unexpected development has dramatically changed Portugal´s political landscape. Out of the blue, the opposition leader was able to turn around a defeat into an apparent victory. It is uncertain, though, how long it will last.

An anti-austerity executive will be leading Portugal, at least for the nearest future, after the centre-right coalition fell short of an absolute majority (107 seats out of a 230 seats Parliament). This has happened before in other countries, but is an odd and unexpected development that has no precedent in Portuguese politics.

Historical moment

In Portugal, there have been a wide variety of governing formulas, from single-party majority governments to coalition majority governments, from single-party minority governments to coalition minority governments, and to governments with the support of the President. But never before has there been a leftist “alliance” between the socialists (PS), the extreme left (BE), and the communists (PCP).

A motion of rejection (not a motion of no confidence) was passed by the left for the first time in its history. This figure is the highest sanctioning instrument a parliamentary group has at its disposal to bestow political responsibility upon a government. The four parties in the opposition (including the Green Party), presented four distinct motions of rejection. Only the first one needed to be voted through. For a motion of this nature to succeed, it requires an absolute majority. The score was 123 votes in favor of the dismissal of the government against 107 votes against, including the picturesque Party for Animals and Nature (PAN). The outcome: Portugal shortest-lived government.


According to the Portuguese Constitution of 1976, once a government is rejected in the Parliament, it must be replaced. The President is obliged to nominate the leader of the second most voted party. However, once nominated, the President can decide if the proposed government is fit enough to rule and swear it in. If the eventual government does not fulfil this condition (a matter that depends on the limited discretion of the President), the only constitutional alternative is the so called “Presidential Initiative Government”, a hybrid institution that relies on independent personalities and imposes no party commitment.

Yet, it is highly unlikely that the President, Anibal Cavaco Silva, now at the end of his term in office, will be willing to convene such a singular government. He clearly stated that he has no intention of swearing in a government that goes against the historical commitments to which Portugal has subscribed (in particular in the framework of the EU), and yet legally he has no alternative.

The President cannot act as an obstructing power and impose his will upon the Parliament. Calling for new elections is not possible, as the Parliament cannot be dismissed within the six months succeeding its election. Neither can elections be called in the last semester of a presidential mandate. As both scenarios apply, Cavaco Silva's hands are tied.

Playing the communist card

Francisco Sá Carneiro, a former Portuguese prime minister, once said that “politics without risk is boring, but politics without ethics is a shame”. In other words: does everything go in politics? Or rather, does Antonio Costa have enough political legitimacy to be sworn in as Prime Minister?

Costa deceived the centre-right coalition into believing he was willing to negotiate with them in good faith. He then deceived the President into believing that he had an agreement with the radical left and the communists (he didn’t). However, and more importantly, he fooled the electorate. During the electoral campaign, a post-election coalition was never on the table, and certainly not with two parties (PCP and BE) that uphold they don’t want to be part of the EU, something so obviously at odds not only with the Socialist Party electoral program, but with the vast majority of the Portuguese people.

And yet this lack of legitimacy is not the only issue at stake. In fact, Antonio Costa did not reach an overall agreement with the Greens (PEV), the Communist Party (PCP) and the radical left (BE). Instead, he signed three different agreements, each one recognizing, implicitly, that there was no overall agreement with the other two.

This “coalition” has not even arranged to pass a budget, nor has it discussed what to do with the EU and its compelling rules. Remarkably, it has even been unable to reach common ground in minor matters such as setting the festive days. The only point in common seems to be the desire to put an end to increased austerity. Whether this “anti-austerity glue” is powerful enough to guarantee the sustainability of a “joint government” remains to be seen.

Passing the blame

Pedro Passos Coelho’s coalition (PSD/CDS) is also responsible for the current political deadlock. Orthodox and dogmatic pursuits of neoliberalism have badly hurt social and economic rights. As a result, too many in Portugal have no job, no home and no hope. Too many have been forced to pay for the blunders and largesse of bankers and politicians, both at home and abroad. And people hardly understand how it is possible that power in the EU emanates only from one set.

The relevant point here is that austerity policies have destroyed the political centre. On the one hand, we have the right, on the other, we have the left, and nothing in the middle. On the one side is the dogmatic neoliberal faith; on the other a seeming lack of ideas and alternatives other than the slogan of “end austerity now”.

But the left is not at all homogenous. It hosts a Communist Party and a new radical left coalition, the Bloco de Esquerda, similar to other radical movements we have seen growing in the South of Europe like Movimento 5 Stelle, Podemos or Syriza. The first is a Stalinist party, collectivist by nature and outdated by history. The second, a radical force that openly declares it wants to leave the Euro and swiftly restructure the internal debt. Both are at odds with the PS (Socialist Party) who wants to stay in the Euro, wants to stay in NATO and does not want to hear about anything resembling to a debt restructuring.

As a result, Portugal finds itself in a profound contradiction:  it wants to remain in the EU and, at the same time, it wants the end of austerity at any price. To solve this contradiction the country will need the kind of flexibility Portuguese communists cannot bring in.

Orthodox communism has ended anywhere else. But in Portugal it remains an anachronism, a relic made only possible to endure by the nature of decades-long economic and social policies, which have gone way too far in obliterating the common goods. In Portugal, like nowhere else in the continent, unregulated and greedy capitalism has allowed Marxist-Leninist communists to live to tell the tale.

Maturity or foolishness?

Many may cherish that an historical “agreement” was signed. Many will claim that this is the end of bipartisanship as we know it, bringing more plurality into the political scene. And coalition is the name of the game in many European countries. But this alone does not mean Portugal politics will change for the better.

The Portuguese Democracy has now certainly an opportunity to mature and evolve. More and more diverse participation can lead to a better democracy. But it is doubtful that the current “agreement to agree”, linking a defeated politician (Antonio Costa) and two parties that want no part in Europe, will strike that bargain.

The right writes few words, but too many numbers. The left writes too many words, but uses few numbers. Yet there is a growing consensus in Europe that increased German-like austerity was not the way to deal with the South, but that radical solutions are unviable. The example of Syriza is a beacon for any serious politician, in Brussels and elsewhere. Admittedly, the costs have been too high, and social justice, redistribution, civil society engagement and local participation are seemingly a much better alternative. But to trade austerity for an unforeseeable plan is not a plan at all. It looks foolish.

If Antonio Costa, out of the blue -as he has been able to do with his unexpected coalition- comes up with a concrete program whereby Portugal is able to increase wages, diminish unemployment, ensure social and economic rights and foster education and participation, and at the same time, complies with the country’s commitments to European rules, then… chapeau!

Unfortunately, we could end up witnessing the same futile debate: the left vs. the right, the right vs. the left, endlessly. And, caught in the middle, there is nothing left but the people. Again, they are bound to be called to solve the insolvable puzzle in yet a new election.

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