Portugal’s general election

Comments invited on today’s general election in Portugal. This election was called early due to the collapse of the outgoing government of Socialist premier Jose Socrates over the country’s financial crisis.

According to The Guardian, “The most recent opinion polls suggest that [opposition PSD leader] Passos Coelho will win and be able to form a government with the support of the rightwing People’s party.”

Portugal’s government collapses

The cabinet of Portuguese premier José Sócrates failed to secure a crucial vote on an austerity package in the Assembly yesterday, and has resigned. Portugal may need to follow Greece and Ireland in seeking a financial stabilization package (or, less charitably, a “bailout”), and could be headed for a snap election.

This case is particularly interesting to me because it is a case of cohabitation in a semi-presidential* democracy that had been going on–and apparently quite smoothly–for a long time.

The Portuguese president, Anibal Cavaco Silva, is from the misnamed conservative party, the Social Democratic Party (PSD). The outgoing PM is from the Socialist Party (PS). President Silva was reelected in January of this year by a wide margin. I mean, really, really wide:

Anibal Cavaco Silva, PSD, 53%
Manuel Alegre Duarte, PS, 19.8%

Obviously, the PM’s party did not make much of an effort to reclaim the presidency. It was also a very low turnout election, held amid the impending financial crisis.

The presidential election was an unusual case of an election during a cohabitation phase when things were clearly already not going well for the country. Yet the president was reelected easily, and apparently the possibility of the president’s using his power to dissolve parliament and change the government (i.e. the PM and cabinet) was not a campaign theme. (See, for example, a Bloomberg report on election day.)

(For the record, in 2006, Cavaco Silva likewise had won an outright majority.)

The comfortable working relationship between the two goes all the way back to Silva’s first election, in 2006. David Samuels and I have the following notation in the dataset for Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers (Cambridge, 2010):

Rival Parties- Silva’s campaign had promised to work with Socrates, did not attack the PM during the election, but inherited a PM from a rival party.

Sócrates had been in office since 2005.

Sócrates led a minority single-party cabinet. The PS obtained 37.7% of the vote in the September, 2009, election, winning 96 of 226 seats. This was a substantial drop from the 2005 election (-8.7% in votes and -24 seats), but good enough to remain in power. The president’s PSD won only 30% of the vote and 78 seats in the election. Parties farther to the left saw a greater increase in their votes and seats in the 2009 election than did the PSD. It was, of course, these leftist parties, in addition to the PSD, that defeated Sócrates in the austerity vote.

So now what? Contrary to some popular and academic assessments, the Portuguese presidency is far from powerless (see Amorim Neto and Lobo, 2009).

If negotiations to form a new government in the current parliament are not fruitful, the president could dissolve parliament and call an early parliamentary election. Whether that would put an end to cohabitation, or result in its reinforcement via an Ireland-style implosion of the governing party, is something I certainly am not in a position to predict. In any case, this will be interesting to watch for us students of semi-presidential systems.

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* The Portuguese system fits squarely in the subtype of premier-presidential, wherein the outcome of legislative elections is more important for determining the composition of the cabinet than are the preferences of the president.