Pedro C. Magalhães – The Portuguese presidential elections of 2016 (or a tough day for party politics)

This is a guest post by Pedro C. Magalhães, Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon, Portugal


Last Sunday, Portugal elected the fifth president of its democratic Third Republic. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 67 years old, is a professor of constitutional law and a long time member of the center-right PSD, over which he presided in the late 1990s. However, he’s probably best known among the general public as a political pundit, after having held a weekly political commentary show for many years, first on the radio (in the early 1990s) and then on the TV (since 2000). Endorsed in the election by his own party and by the CDS (a smaller party on the right), he got 52% of the vote (about 2.4 million votes), thus dispensing with a second round.

Turnout was 48.8%. Although slightly above the 2011 elections, this a low figure. First, presidential elections such as this one, where the president does not run (there is a two term limit), typically have higher turnout levels (70% on average since 1976), in contrast with the less competitive cases when the incumbent president runs (60% on average since 1976, 46.5% in the last such election, in 2011). 48.8% this means means it was the lowest turnout ever recorded for an election without the incumbent running. Second, turnout was also low from a comparative point of view. If we start from a list of European semi-presidential systems and look for the turnout rates in the most recent presidential elections held there (from IDEA’s Voter Turnout website), we see that Portugal’s turnout rates have been very low recently. The 2016 rate, although an improvement over 2011, still ranks among the lowest in these countries’ recent elections (see Figure 1). In other words, there is a clear mismatch between the important powers enjoyed by the Portuguese president —including, among others, the discretionary ability to dissolve parliament, appoint the Prime Minister, veto legislation and refer bills and laws to the Constitutional Court — and the level of electoral mobilization reached in recent elections.


Part of the explanation may be structural, as turnout has been decreasing throughout in Portugal both in legislative and European elections. However, some specificities of the election may also account for this. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa presented a campaign budget of 157.000 euros (170.000 US dollars, 119.000 British pounds), a ridiculously small amount. Contrary to common practice, there were no campaign billboards or posters of him to be seen across the country. That a candidate can win a presidential election without any major conventional mobilization efforts is interesting and deserves attention. Part of the explanation is that Rebelo de Sousa started out with a stratospheric advantage over all other nine candidates in terms of public notoriety, fed by a decade and a half of television appearances and reinforced by discrete year-long ground efforts near local chapters of the PSD. For him, “lowering the heat” to the bare minimum was clearly the preferable strategy, decreasing the salience of the campaign and thus making it as hard as possible for his opponents to overcome their notoriety gap. Besides, he also understood quite soon that he was not the preferred candidate of his own party’s leadership. The PSD continued throughout most of 2015 to toy around with the possibility of endorsing Rui Rio (former mayor of Oporto) or even Durão Barroso (former EU Commission President). Thus, Marcelo had to impose himself to his own party. This he ultimately achieved, after all potential opponents withdrew. But he still could not count with the mobilization efforts of the PSD party machine, and he knew it.

After having meticulously distanced himself from the PSD/CDS center-right cabinet in his political commentaries throughout the last year, he also proceeded to make himself as palatable as possible to the centrist and even center-left electorate. After the tense and polarized political environment that followed the October 2015 legislative elections — which included the fall of a new short-lived minority PSD-CDS government and its replacement by a PS minority cabinet supported in parliament by the Left Bloc and the Communist Party — Rebelo de Sousa avoided taking strong stances on almost all of the issues raised during those last months, refusing to commit to any systematic opposition to the left-wing government and presenting himself as a moderate president aiming at “reconciliation”. “I am the left of the right”, he said. If pre-election polls are to be trusted in this regard, he did manage to broaden his appeal to a segment of the leftist electorate, while remaining hegemonic among PSD and CDS voters. The latter were probably too concerned with the possibility of ending up with a left-wing president alongside the current left-wing government to care about Marcelo’s unwillingness to cater to their disappointment with recent political developments. It is true that, as he started dropping in the polls (from about 62% in late December to 53% in the last week of the campaign), some feared that his moderation and his effort at “lowering the heat” of the campaign would end up in a failure to mobilize his support base and avoid a second round. But these fears were unjustified.

The Socialist Party (PS) ended up not officially endorsing any candidate, and the party cadres divided their support between Sampaio da Nóvoa (a left-wing independent and former Rector of the University of Lisbon) and Maria de Belém (a former Socialist minister). Together, they got no more than 27% of the vote, about 1.25 million votes, five percentage points and almost 500.000 votes below the (already disappointing) result of the Socialists in the October 2015 election. Belém’s result (4.2%) was particularly catastrophic, and certainly not alien to a controversy in the late campaign about her opposition to the withdrawal of a life-time subsidy for MP’s. However, her lag vis-à-vis Sampaio da Nóvoa had started earlier, and in a sense also seems to be linked to the general theme in this campaign: while Rebelo de Sousa became president regardless of his own party, “party” did next to nothing for Belém, with many Socialist voters turning their hopes instead in the direction of the independent Sampaio da Nóvoa. A 27% aggregate result is worrying for the Socialists. However, it is also a reflection of Rebelo de Sousa’s “long campaign” strategy: becoming a seemingly unbeatable favorite from early on, he conditioned everybody else’s response, including the PS’s. The Socialists failed to find a single strong candidate willing to challenge Marcelo and ended up with two people that, regardless of their personal merits, are political lightweights. One thing could have seriously derailed Marcelo’s strategy and its repercussions to the overall campaign: if former Socialist PM António Guterres, currently UN High Commissioner for Refugees, had decided to jump into the fray. But Guterres seems instead interested in a candidacy for UN Secretary General and, if that fails, there are interesting and highly prestigious non-political jobs waiting for him back in Portugal.

Finally, a note about the performance of the candidates supported by the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP). Marisa Matias, from the BE, got about 10% of the vote. That’s 460.000 votes, merely 30.000 below the score of the BE in October (in a more participated election) and 170.000 more than the best BE presidential candidate ever. This contrasts starkly with the abysmal performance of the Communist Party candidate, Edgar Silva, a virtually unknown former priest: 4% of the vote, the worst result ever by a candidate endorsed by the PCP. This result confirms and expands that of the 2015 legislative elections, where the BE clearly surpassed the Communists. Whether this means that the BE will be finally able to overcome the past volatility of its electoral base and definitely replace the Communist as the main party to the left of the PS remains to be seen, but this is clearly the most dangerous threat to Communists’ role in the political system that the party — the oldest, best organized, and most socially rooted in Portugal — has ever faced. That the survival of the Socialist minority cabinet depends on both the PCP and the BE adds additional uncertainty about how the response of the former to this threat will affect cabinet stability.

In his victory speech, president-elect Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa talked about “national unity”, “social cohesion” and the need to address “social injustices that the crisis has increased, but without endangering financial solidity”. This may sound like a bunch of generalities spoken by a powerless figurehead president, pleasing all sides and alienating nobody. Generalities they may be, but Portuguese presidents have never been powerless or irrelevant. Nor have they been particularly predictable. In 1990, by the end of Mário Soares first term as president, people debated whether it still made sense to popularly elect a President what had turned into a sort of “Queen of England”. But in his second term, Soares quickly proceeded to become the main source of opposition to the government and, since his tenure, more than one cabinet was led to its demise with the active collaboration of a president.

So it is wise not to make any rash judgments on the basis of this victory speech. It is true that, like others before him, the new president will be constrained by the so far irresistible lure of reelection five years from now (all previous Portuguese presidents successfully went for a second term). In the past, this has helped keeping first term presidents in check, forcing them to aim at the median voter and at the fulfillment of the most general expectation seem to have Portuguese have of the presidency: that it should be a vigilant but mostly neutral and impartial arbiter of politics. However, facing a minority cabinet, and with the present level of political, financial and economic uncertainty in Portugal, playing that relatively modest role may become difficult for the new president. At the very least, whenever Rebelo de Sousa needs and wants to act, he can do so as one of the least politically constrained presidents Portugal ever had, having imposed himself on his party, being elected with little help from it, and having no favors from campaign funders he has to pay back. So what kind of president will he be? Unfortunately, now we won’t have Marcelo the pundit speculating about Marcelo the President. Or will we? Even that is unpredictable.

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