Jorge M. Fernandes and Carlos Jalali – Portuguese Semi-Presidentialism after the 2016 Elections

This is a guest post by Jorge M. Fernandes (University of Bamberg, Germany) and Carlos Jalali (University of Aveiro, Portugal)

The famous dictum attributed to former British PM Harold Macmillan, ‘events, dear boy, events’, helps explain the evolution of Portuguese semi-presidentialism during President Cavaco Silva’s second term in office (2011-2016). In a recently published article in South European Society and Politics, we make an an appraisal of the evolution of semi-presidentialism in Portugal over the ten years of Cavaco’s tenure in power and shed some light on the election of his successor – Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

After being comfortably reelected in January 2011, with a 30 percentage point advantage over the second most-voted candidate, the political and economic situation of the country presented Cavaco with a difficult conundrum. The EU/ECB/IMF bailout that lasted from April 2011 until May 2014 placed important constraints on policy-making in Portugal. On the one hand, the president could give vent to popular dissatisfaction with the bailout’s austerity – and use his formal and informal powers to voice bottom-up disagreement with the government’s policies. However, this risked introducing difficulties into the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which could spark the wrath of the international creditors. On the other other hand, by staying idle, Cavaco faced the risk of unpopularity in public opinion.

Cavaco’s decision to give his tacit support to the implementation of the MoU had an important negative impact in his popularity, which, in turn, curbed his political influence. In the final months of his second mandate he was a lame-duck president, with increasing difficulties to use his non-formal powers. For example, in the turbulent government formation process following the October general elections, Cavaco Silva’s influence, or lack thereof, curtailed his capacities to liaise a deal between the two main parties, the Socialists and the Social Democrats, to form a grand coalition. Rather, a sub-optimal solution, from Cavaco’s perspective, was reached: a Socialist minority government with the tacit support of the extreme-left Communists and Left-Bloc.

Typically, Presidents have been the most popular political figures in Portugal, enjoying support levels above party leaders and other office-holders. Figure 1 depicts Cavaco popularity between 2011 and 2016. In January 2012, a sharp drop in popularity hurt Cavaco’s political influence after his public statements on how austerity would have a negative effect on his personal finances and how difficult it would be for him to pay for his personal expenses. Overall, at the end of his mandate, the institutional figure of the Presidency had its prestige and influence severely eroded due to Cavaco’s unpopularity in office.

Figure 1: Evaluation of President Cavaco Silva’s performance, 2011-2016 (balance between positive and negative evaluations)

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The 2016 presidential election took place against this backdrop. In addition, the months leading to the presidential election had witnessed the unfolding of some of the most dramatic events in Portuguese democracy, with a difficult government formation process. The presidential election had 10 candidates, an unprecedented figure since Portugal held presidential free and fair elections in 1976.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the right-wing candidate supported by the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, seemed poised to win the election, with his high levels of popularity garnered over decades as a political pundit in a popular television show. On the left, a myriad of candidates was trailing Marcelo’s lead in the polls, fighting for an opportunity in the second round. Sampaio da Nóvoa, a highly respected academic figure, earned the support of some of the founding fathers of Portuguese democracy in the Socialist Party. The candidate lacked, however, name recognition by median voters, which would have a negative impact on his result. Maria de Belém, a former Socialist minister, launched her bid to the presidency urged by a faction within the Socialist party. The Socialist party and the Prime Minister chose not to endorse any of the candidates. The Communists presented Edgar Silva, a former priest with low public visibility, while the Left Bloc put forth Marisa Matias, an MEP and a rising star in the party. In addition to the mainstream candidates, there were five independent candidates, looking to build upon the anti-party sentiment and to surf the discontent wave grassing in Portugal.

The campaign had a remarkably low mobilization. The hollowing of the presidential campaign resulted from the perception of the irrelevance of the president’s role, ensuing Cavaco’s choice not to help mitigate austerity and to give his (at least) tacit support to the bail-out measures. For all its problems, the role of the president in the political system was not debated during the campaign. Instead, candidates chose to have a personalized campaign, depoliticizing most of their campaign actions, focusing on personal contact with the population and in making a character judgment of the candidates. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the leading candidate in the polls, followed this strategy strictly in the hope that this would deflate the importance of the elections, allowing him to be elected in the first round.

On January 24th, 48.66 per cent of registered voters went to the polls to elect a new president, the lowest turnout in odd-numbered presidential elections, which have traditionally been more competitive for their importance in selecting a non-incumbent president. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won 52 per cent of vote, with a catch-all coalition. To be sure, his score surpassed the aggregate score of his supporting parties (PSD and CSD), just three months before, by adding 15.1 to the share of those two parties. Sampaio da Nóvoa came second with 22.9 per cent of the votes, falling just 2 percentage points short of forcing Marcelo into a second round, a remarkable feat for an unknown academic figure. Marisa Matias came third, with 10.1 per cent of the votes, yielding the best presidential score in the history of the Left Bloc. In contrast, the Communists had a grim electoral result, with their worst result ever, with just 3.9 per cent. Maria de Belém, the other candidate from the Socialist area, scored just 4.2 per cent, an extremely bad result for the former Health minister. Surprisingly, for all Portugal’s economic woes, anti-system candidates had very modest scores, totaling 6.84 per cent of the vote for 5 candidates.

What can we expect from a Marcelo presidency? On the surface, President Marcelo differs little from his predecessor. Both Marcelo and Cavaco Silva were previous leaders of the PSD; both had the backing of the PSD and the CDS; and both won their presidential elections on the first round with a margin of 30 percentage points over the second-placed candidate. Yet his first months in office suggest that Marcelo is trying to distance himself as much as possible from his predecessor’s legacy. Indeed, in this initial period President Marcelo has actively courted public opinion, cultivated a supra-partisan stance and avoided tensions with the Socialist government of António Costa. This contrasts sharply with how Cavaco Silva’s presidency ended: an increasingly withdrawn and unpopular political figure, perceived by the left as a partisan president and unable to forge the consensus he sought between PSD, PS and CDS – most notably, in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections. President Marcelo thus appears to seek to re-establish the presidency after a period of hollowing out of the presidency which also shaped the presidential elections of 2016.

However, the end of Cavaco Silva’s presidency does not solely differ from the initial Marcelo presidency: it also stands in stark contrast from the initial period of Cavaco Silva’s own presidency. Then, just as with Marcelo, Cavaco Silva was an overwhelmingly popular president (with an average balance between positive and negative evaluations of +52.8 per cent throughout 2006) who maintained an ‘above party’ stance and avoided friction with a Socialist government – indeed, so much so that prime minister Sócrates told President Cavaco in December 2006 that ‘we like working with you’. Cavaco’s undoing was largely the result of a deteriorating economic, social and political situation that culminated in a bailout. Marcelo – who is widely reputed as a master political tactician – will need all his tactical nous to avoid repeating Cavaco’s fate, not least as Portugal’s economic, social and political situation remains uncertain and precarious.

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