Whilst the left has been strengthened, social mobilisations will have to be intensified in Portugal, writes João Camargo
This week’s presidential election in Portugal represented a defeat for the left as Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, for ten years the best-known commentator on Portuguese TV, was elected President of the Republic.
The Socialist Party was divided and two of its members stood, one from the left and the other from the right, respectively supporting and opposing the current government’s deal with the other left parties in parliament, the Communist Party and the Left Bloc. Together the two socialist candidates took just 27.8% of the vote. The Communist Party candidate only won 3.95%, whilst the Left Bloc’s candidate, the MEP Marisa Matias, received 10.1% of the vote, coming third but achieving its best result ever in a presidential election.
The new Portuguese president, right-wing backed Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is a Professor of Law and a former leader of the Social-Democratic Party (the right-wing conservatives in government until last October). He is also, as the step-son of Marcelo Caetano, directly linked to the old dictatorship that ruled the country until 1974 and is son of the minister for the colonies. After ten years of political comment on television every Sunday night people are familiar with his unconventional and friendly persona. His candidacy had the support of the two pro-austerity parties which formed the previous government, and he won with 52% of the vote.
The turnout was just 48.8%, the lowest ever in the first round of a presidential election, and he was elected with the fewest votes for a winning candidate. The role of the media, and in particular television, in the election was paramount. De Sousa was given a free ride, and rather than facing real scrutiny from journalists he was just followed around as he did everyday chores.
The left candidates were unable to prevent him from winning in the first round. The Socialist Party didn’t openly support any candidate. Its former president, Maria de Belém went against the current party leader and prime-minister António Costa, to stand. He supported an independent candidate, Sampaio da Nóvoa, a former Dean of the University of Lisbon. The party divided between a left-wing faction which supported Sampaio da Nóva and a right-wing, which opposes the government’s parliamentary agreement with the other left parties that currently holds party is in power, and which backed Maria de Belém.
In the end, the current leadership of the party lost the election but won the internal battle as its preferred candidate, Sampaio da Nóvoa, obtained 22.9% of the vote. His rival Maria de Belém only received 4.24%. The opposition inside the party to the agreement with left was resoundingly defeated.
The Communist Party had announced its presidential candidate immediately after the parliamentary elections in October as a way to assert its identity and its independence whilst the idea of a government supported in parliament by the other left parties was gaining momentum. In those elections it had been overtaken by the Left Bloc, taking 8.2% of the vote to the Bloc’s 10.2%. They chose Edgar Silva, a well known activist for social causes in Madeira, but the campaign went sour.
Unable to detach himself from party’s jargon and relying heavily on its machinery he ended with only 3.9% of the vote, the worst ever result for a Communist backed presidential candidate. These results will have an impact inside the party, which is still trying to adjust to the reality of the new government and the rise of the Left Bloc. Stern orthodoxy will have to face this new reality and the outcome remains uncertain.
Finally, the most significant result for the left was the 10.1% of the vote won by the Left Bloc’s candidate, the 39-year-old MEP, Marisa Matias. The party maintained its share compared to last year’s parliamentary election and there seems to be a stabilisation of its vote. Matias was an impressive candidate in debates and in the final one, between all candidates, she was able to crush Maria de Belém’s support for lifetime subsidies for MPs. She brought into the campaign important issues such as the need to stop austerity and challenge the EU and its treaties, and she opposed the latest bailout, of bankrupt bank BANIF. Her ordinary background and friendliness in the streets and rallies was also an important contributor to her strong showing.
She achieved the Left Bloc’s best result ever in a presidential election. In 2001 the party’s candidate took 3% and 5.3% in 2006. In 2011 did they did not stand instead opted to support a candidate backed by the Socialist Party and others. She also, with 479,000 votes, received, the best result ever for a female candidate in a presidential election.
The general result is bad as the new President cannot be relied upon to support the anti-austerity line taken by the government. It is expected that to start with, he will remain politically neutral, but with looming confrontations with the European Commission and the European Central Bank, the result has made the situation more difficult for the government.
However, the right inside the Socialist Party has certainly been weakened by the poor result of their candidate, whilst the left has been strengthened by the Left Bloc’s good result. But social mobilisations will have to be intensified now the backers of austerity have one of their own as president of the country.