As Portugal heads to the polls – how do Portuguese elections work?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 4th January 2022

The UK isn’t the only country to hold snap elections. Portugal is holding a snap election at the end of the month (30 January 2022) after parliament rejected the budget proposed by António Costa’s government last autumn. Before Portuguese voters go to the polls, we thought we’d take a look at the system they’ll be using to choose their next parliament and the parties and possible governments they’ll be choosing from.

Voting System

Portugal’s Assembly of the Republic is made-up of 230 MPs, all elected by Party List PR. The Portuguese variant of List PR is probably the most similar to the version that was previously used to elect British MEPs between 1999 and 2019 – using closed lists, the D’Hondt method, fairly small constituencies and no electoral thresholds.

226 of the 230 MPs are elected in geographic constituencies that correspond to the eighteen districts of Portugal and the autonomous regions of Azores and Madeira. The range in size of these constituencies is quite large – the smallest (Portalegre) elects 2 MPs and the largest (Lisbon) has 48. But most districts are relatively small, with the median constituency returning 7 MPs.

The remaining 4 seats are chosen by Portuguese citizens living abroad – with two representing those living in the rest of Europe and the other two representing those ‘outside’ Europe.

Although Portugal uses a constituency system, Portuguese MPs are constitutionally obliged to represent the interests of the whole country rather than merely their constituents. But the small size of most of the constituencies, paired with the D’Hondt method, means that there is an overall bias towards the larger parties, with smaller parties having to focus on the larger, city constituencies if they want to win seats.

Parties and Government

Since democratisation in the 1970s, Portuguese politics has been home to a moderately multi-party system with two dominant parties. These are your standard centre-left Socialist Party (PS) and the confusingly named Social Democratic Party (PSD), who were founded as social democrats, but have long been liberal conservatives and sit with the centre-right EPP in Europe. These two parties have held between 75 and 90 percent of seats between them over the past 30 years.

The other long-standing, smaller presences in the Assembly are the conservative CDS-People’s Party, the communist-dominated United Democratic Coalition (CDU) and the populist Left Bloc (BE). They have been joined in the recent years by the environmentalist People-Animals-Nature (PAN), libertarian Liberal Initiative (IL) and the far-right Chega (Enough!) – all took just one MP last time but are expecting gains this time.

Like France, Portugal uses a semi-presidential system with a strong, directly elected President alongside its Prime Minister and their cabinet. Although the President formally appoints the Prime Minister, the PM does have to maintain the confidence of the Assembly and is usually appointed in a similar manner to PMs in other countries. In fact, Portugal is currently undergoing a period of ‘cohabitation’ – the President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is from the PSD, while the Prime Minister, António Costa, is from the opposing Socialist Party. This isn’t too much of an issue in Portugal, with the President’s executive powers largely being restricted to foreign and defence policy.

Competition for government in Portugal follows a two-bloc system, similar to that seen in Scandinavia. Recent governments have been either centre-right coalitions between the PSD and the People’s Party or single-party Socialist governments – either with their own majority or as a minority with support from left-wing parties in the Assembly.

What will happen this time is not entirely clear – polls predict a close and tightening race, though one with the Socialists and wider left bloc currently slightly ahead. But how any result translates into governments will be interesting. Incumbent Costa is clearly the more popular choice for Prime Minister, but another Socialist government will likely require the support of the same left-wing parties who caused this election by withdrawing support for his cabinet’s budget.

But a PSD victory would almost certainly require a new governing formula. Their historic coalition partners – the People’s Party – are likely heading towards their worst ever result. Instead, if the right bloc ends up ahead, the PSD will have to turn to the new right-wing parties – Liberal Initiative or even Chega. Both parties are set for gains in this election, but whether those gains are enough to kick Costa out and put themselves in a position of power is yet to be seen.

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