Portugal has often been seen as a political exception among its European counterparts. In the mid-2010s, when much of the EU started shifting to the right – and in some cases the far-right – the Iberian nation remained a bastion of stability. Despite running a minority government, socialist prime minister António Costa (pictured) oversaw a stable alliance since 2015 with his partners on the left, the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and Left Bloc (BE). This allowed him to govern seamlessly, passing laws and approving an annual budget.
That all came to a halt last week. Despite an expansive budget proposal from Costa for next year, his leftist allies said it didn’t go far enough and withheld their support. This is a rare event in Portugal: it’s only the second time since the end of the dictatorship in 1974 that a budget has not been approved. The result? President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has dissolved parliament and triggered elections two years ahead of schedule.
The snap vote comes at a delicate time for Portugal. The country has just started to re-emerge from the pandemic and the consequences of austerity over the past 10 years have only now started to be eased. Early polling suggests that António Costa will be re-elected; his Socialist party is polling 9 points ahead of the main opposition, the Social Democrats, who are in the midst of their own leadership struggle. The leftist PCP and BE, despite sticking to their principles, could well be penalised by the electorate for failing to avoid a political crisis.
Still, the 30 January election is a long way away and it could all change when campaigning officially begins. Patiently waiting in the wings is the far-right Chega party, which won its first seat in 2019. Portugal’s stability and progressive politics are out there for the world to see – but are they visible at home too?