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António Costa’s against-the-odds election triumph

O secretário-geral do Partido Socialista (PS) e primeiro-ministro, António Costa, intervém durante a reunião da comissão nacional do Partido, em Lisboa, 04 de julho de 2020. Da ordem de trabalhos faz parte a análise da situação política; a apreciação e votação do Relatório de Contas relativo a 2019; a ratificação das deliberações da Comissão Permanente de adiar e retomar os processos de eleições federativas de 12 de março e 17 junho, bem como a discussão e aprovação de novas datas de atos eleitorais e congressos federativos. ANTÓNIO PEDRO SANTOS/LUSA

LISBON — The polls said he couldn’t do it. Pundits warned that even trying would spell disaster.

A few days ago, even António Costa himself seemed to have given up any hope of winning an absolute majority in Sunday’s election.

Yet he did it.

Costa stunned Portugal by securing at least 117 seats in the 230-seat Assembleia da República for his Socialist Party. (They are likely to grab a couple more as results filter in from the Portuguese diaspora.)

“The Portuguese have shown a red card to political crisis,” Costa told joyous supporters as victory was confirmed in the small hours of Monday morning. “They have shown they want stability, certainty and security.”

Stability is the keyword.

Costa convinced voters the Socialists were the only party that could provide stable government at a crucial time, as the country prepares for investment and reform under the European Union’s pandemic recovery plan.

During a hectic end to the campaign, the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) had appeared to threaten Costa’s reelection. Polls last week had the two main parties neck-and-neck.

But the PSD never had any hope of securing an overall majority, even if it managed to get support from smaller center-right parties, and Costa warned the Social Democrats would be “hostage” to radical far-right neophytes.

He insisted the choice was between the PS or instability. “There’s only one solution to this political crisis: Only the PS can bring political stability for the next four years,” Costa said on the campaign trail.

Voters believed him.

Although conventional wisdom suggested citizens would shy away from giving Costa too much power, the PS had its best result since 2005 with 41.7 percent. The PSD got just 28 percent.

The night’s biggest losers, however, were the two far-left parties that had propped up Costa’s minority governments since 2015 but deserted him in October, triggering a political crisis and the early election.

The Left Bloc won just five seats, down from the 19 it got two years ago. The Portuguese Communist Party saw its representation halved to six.

Voters blamed them for sparking an unnecessary crisis that distracted from the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery.

With €16.6 billion coming to Portugal under the EU’s Recovery and Resilience program, the far left insisted Costa throw cash at health and social services, and roll back labor market liberalization.

When he refused, they ganged up with the right to vote down his 2022 budget plan.

The far left gambled on voters’ support for their big-spending plans. Instead they were blamed for threatening stability.

“A wall fell on the Bloc and the PCP and the PS picked up the pieces,” conservative commentator João Miguel Tavares wrote Monday in an article titled “The suicide of the radical left.”

Adding to the far left’s woes, two new parties on the right overtook them to become the third- and fourth-strongest forces in parliament.

The far-right Chega now has 12 seats and the free-market Liberal Initiative won eight. Both had just one lawmaker before.

The fragmentation of the right, and in particular the rise of Chega, will complicate Portuguese politics.

But for the moment Costa has a clear field to shape policy over the next four years: “António Costa is the king and master of Portugal,” Tavares wrote.

His victory was warmly welcomed by the center left around Europe.

“Congratulations on your great victory,” tweeted German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who won his own election in September, but fell well short of an overall majority.

“I am very delighted that you will continue to serve Portugal as a true advocate of social justice,” Scholz added. “Let us take on the challenges of our time together and build a better and stronger Europe!”

Europe’s socialists could do with more like Costa. As a canny political operator, he has few rivals.

He actually lost the 2015 election, despite the incumbent center-right government being widely reviled for its tough austerity policies. But Costa sneaked into office by striking an unprecedented deal with the far left.

The unlikely alliance of his centrist, pro-NATO and pro-Europe Socialists with the hammer-and-sickle-waving PCP and the radically anti-capitalist Left Bloc was dubbed the gerinconça, meaning rickety contraption.

To many people’s surprise, it worked.

Voters liked the way the left-wing government “turned the page on austerity” and managed economic growth while giving democratic Portugal its first balanced budget in 2019.

Costa won reelection that year with an increased Socialist vote but still no overall majority.

When COVID struck a few months later, he gained plaudits for swift action that shielded Portugal from the worst of the pandemic’s early impact even as the virus ravaged health systems in Spain and Italy.

Support programs to protect the tourist-dependent economy have also gone down well. Unemployment is at a two-decade low of 5.9 percent, despite the pandemic’s impact. Growth of 4.9 percent last year exceeded the government’s own forecasts.

Then in October, the geringonça fell apart with the revolt over the budget, despite Costa’s efforts to please the far left by hiking the minimum wage and easing taxes for the low-paid.

Having gambled and lost, the far left will be less of a headache for Costa. He’ll now be more worried about the extreme right.

Until recently Portugal had been largely immune to the rise of radical nationalism across Europe. In part, that’s a legacy of 40 decades of fascist-style dictatorship that was only toppled in 1974.

With the PSD demoralized by another heavy defeat, Chega leader André Ventura promised his 12 lawmakers will be the real opposition to Socialist rule.

“António Costa, I’m coming after you now,” Ventura repeatedly told a party celebration Monday.

Chega’s 7.1 percent is an undoubted success compared with the 1.3 percent the party won in 2019. But it’s down sharply on the almost 12 percent Ventura captured in a run to become Portugal’s president a year ago.

And Sunday’s election shows the enduring strength of Portugal’s center. Together the two main parties scored almost 70 percent.

In comparison, Spain’s main center-left and center-right parties totaled below 49 percent in the last elections; their counterparts in Italy got 33 percent; and the combined total of France’s Socialists and Republicans was a measly 24 percent.

There’s also a rising new alterative on the center right in the shape of Liberal Initiative, which saw its vote rise almost fourfold to 4.98 percent.

“We’ve proved it’s possible to win votes without being populist, without being extremist,” Liberal leader João Cotrim de Figueiredo said Monday. “This is a victory for Portuguese democracy.”

The rise of new parties on the right will make life harder for whoever takes over the leadership of the PSD from Rui Rio. He all but announced his departure after Sunday’s defeat, saying he no longer had a “useful” role in the party.

The Social Democrats will have to find a path that challenges Costa for control of the center while countering Chega’s radical rhetoric on the right.

If they are looking for a model, Costa’s handling of the far left while managing to please Portugal’s middle-of-the-road electorate could point the way.

It remains to be seen how long Costa himself will be around.

Having won only the fourth single-party majority since democracy was restored in the 1970s, he’s on course to become Portugal’s longest-serving democratic prime minister — if he stays to the end of his four-year term.

However, Costa is thought to have European ambitions.

Lisbon’s chattering classes are abuzz with gossip that he could step down early to seek a top position in Brussels, possibly president of the European Council — another post that needs a canny political operator.

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