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No, Portugal is not having a constitutional crisis. This is the real story.

- October 28, 2015
The Portuguese parliament is seen in this general view taken during the election for parliament president in Lisbon, Oct. 23, 2015. (Rafael Marchante/Reuters)

Is Portugal in a profound constitutional crisis after its Oct. 4 legislative elections? That’s what a slew of articles in the English-language media have been suggesting, after the incumbent right-wing coalition got the most votes, despite four years of unpopular austerity measures. But that’s not what set off the impression of a crisis. The confusion seems to grow from a piece by The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who argued that, for the first time in euro-zone history, “a member state has taken the explicit step of forbidding euroskeptic parties from taking office on the grounds of national interest.” Evans-Pritchard implied that the demands of the euro – the European Union’s single currency — are forcing an entire country’s democracy to capitulate.

Why would he suggest that? Because President Anibal Cavaco Silva decided to invite the winning right-wing coalition “Portugal à Frente” (PaF) to try to form a government, even though three left-wing parties — the Socialist Party (PS), the Communists (PCP-PEV) and the Bloco de Esquerda (BE, Portugal’s Syriza) — could create a viable majority. As The Guardian explained:

Cavaco Silva drew sharp criticism for asking [PaF leader] Passos Coelho to form a minority government, denying other parties the opportunity. He argued that no governing coalition in Portugal had ever featured an “anti-European” party that had campaigned to take the country out of the euro – as both the Communists and the Left Bloc have done.

But Evans-Pritchard inferred too much from those remarks. Here’s why he is wrong.

Portugal is still pro-Europe and pro-euro.

Euroskepticism remains a negligible force in Portuguese politics. The PCP-PEV is hostile toward the European Union, although its criticism is largely aimed at the bloc’s economic orientation. The Bloco de Esquerda states in its electoral manifesto that it is prepared for ‘all the consequences’ of a direct confrontation with the E.U. institutions. But for the most part, this means confrontation within the current institutional framework.

These two parties won 18.44 percent of the popular vote between them, which does not constitute a significant departure from their usual share of the vote. Nor does it suggest that the Portuguese electorate is turning against the euro, let alone shifting toward euroskepticism.

The PS, which won 32.31 percent of the vote and would thus form the bulk of this purported ‘euroskeptic’ front, is decidedly pro-euro and pro-Europe. In fact, under the previous leadership of Jose Socrates, the PS claimed to be the “party of Europe.” Under the PS’s leadership, Portugal acceded to the EEC (the European Economy Community, the European Union until 1993), the euro and signed the Treaty of Lisbon, the latest revision of the European Union’s constitutional framework.

Is there really a left-wing coalition?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, these parties have indicated that they are willing to work together — but they have not publicly committed to a formal pact. There are good reasons to believe that such a coalition would be extremely difficult to pull together and even harder to keep intact.

To start with, they have disagreements about the euro. The leader of the socialists, Antonio Costa, accuses (in Portuguese) the BE of promising “something” (by which he means debt restructuring) that is not up to the Portuguese government, and adds that the BE should be “humble in light of what happened in Greece.”

They also have profound disagreements about Portugal’s role within NATO. The BE calls for an immediate exit, while the PCP-PEV calls for an end to “submission.” And there are historically rooted hostilities between the PCP-PEV and PS that go all the way back to Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution.

There are already signs of internal tensions within the PS at the prospect of a coalition with the communists. Francisco Assis, a socialist Member of the European Parliament, has penned an opinion piece that highlights the great ideological distance separating the PS and the PCP-PEV, “a party that still laments the disappearance of the Soviet Union.”

Similarly, Sergio Sousa Pinto, a former youth leader in the PS, abandoned the party’s national secretariat in opposition to the leadership’s sidling up to the left wing. A message later posted on his Facebook page charged that neither the PCP-PEV nor the BE were interested in the “burden of governing,” and merely wanted to weaken the socialists.

Normally, the party that won the majority of votes is asked to form a government. And that’s what happened. 

The president’s decision to give priority to the party that received most votes in the election is, in fact, the tacit norm in Portugal. Since the first democratic elections in 1976, there has never been a government in Portugal that did not include the biggest vote winner in the most recent legislative election.

In his televised address on Thursday during prime time, the president pointed out that in 2009 he invited the PS to form a government, even though the party had only won 97 seats in parliament (10 less than the 107 won by the PaF coalition now). Furthermore, the president argued that he saw no reason to break the norm at a moment when Portugal’s economic recovery is still fragile. Portugal exited a €78 million support package in May 2014 after reducing its budget deficit from 11.2 percent of GDP in 2010 to 4.8 percent in 2014.

Certainly, the president’s political allegiances played a role in his decision. He previously headed three governments that included the PSD, the leading party of the right-leaning PaF.

But this is a crafty domestic political maneuver — not a capitulation to the euro and abandonment of the president’s constitutional duties, as Evans-Pritchard claims.

But this won’t be a very stable government.

The president’s decision suggests that Portugal’s political situation will be highly unstable for the foreseeable future. Once seen as an oasis of calm among the bailed-out European states, Portuguese politics is now fraught with factions, complex choices and uncertain outcomes.

If the left-wing coalition materializes, it will, for the first time, bifurcate the Portuguese party system into two grand blocs: a left and a right coalition. This would be a major transformation for a country that likes to see itself as a place of ‘brandos costumes’ (“gentle habits”).

Right now, the most pressing question is whether the PaF will be able to assume the reins of government and pass the already delayed 2016 budget. Already, Costa has announced a no-confidence vote against the PaF government. To get over this first hurdle, the PaF needs seven rebellious members of parliament from the other side to vote against this motion.

Attention has thus turned to a group of 15 socialist MPs who are critical of the current PS’s leadership. However, since no-confidence votes are a matter of party discipline for the PS, these 15 would likely be expelled from the parliamentary party if they vote no.

Alternatively, if the PaF fails to gather sufficient votes to pass a parliamentary vote, the president can leave the current government as caretaker, propose another sort of caretaker government or ask the PS to form a government.

However, there will be a presidential election in January 2016, before any new parliamentary elections take place. That election may turn out to be the crucial moment for Portugal’s political future because, in the likely event of another fractioned assembly, the new president will have the power to decide whether norms are meant to be broken.

Diogo Lemos is a PhD candidate in political science at George Washington University.

Correction: This post has been corrected to reflect that President Anibal Cavaco Silva has led three governments that included the PSD, not two as originally stated, and that if the PaF fails to gain the votes to pass a parliamentary vote, the president can leave the current government as caretaker, propose another sort of caretaker government or ask the PS to form a government. The president is unable to call new elections, as originally stated.