Don’t compare the Portuguese and Spanish elections

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Pedro Passos Coelho's minority government lasted 11 days, making it the shortest-lived government in Portuguese history. [European People's Party/Flickr]

Given the predicted poll results ahead of December’s Spanish elections, and the crisis in Catalonia, it would be over-simplistic, and probably wrong, to compare political developments in Spain and Portugal, writes Elisa Lledó.

Elisa Lledó is a junior researcher at FRIDE.

A new chapter has been opened in the recent history of Portuguese politics. The parliamentary elections, held on 4 October, were won by Pedro Passos Coelho of the Social Democrat Party (PSD), who managed to form a minority government with the Paulo Portas’ People’s Party (CDS-PP). However, Antonio Costa’s Socialist Party (PS) did not give up hope of “snatching” power away from the coalition.

Costa faced an uphill task to achieve this, having to secure an “historic agreement” with three other distinctly-different parties: the Left Bloc, the Communists and the Greens. The alliance succeeded in overthrowing the de jure Prime Minister of Portugal, after 11 days in the job, through a no-confidence motion brought on Tuesday (10 November) in the Parliament.

In addition to a shared border and history, maintaining good neighbourly relations and cooperation at EU-level, Spain and Portugal share the same worries about the economic outlook. The fact that the new king of Spain, Felipe VI, chose Portugal as one of the first countries to visit as monarch shows that strong ties exist between the two Iberian nations.

Portugal and Spain have shared a number of common economic issues in the past few years. The two countries were hit hard by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and both received international aid, and have applied strict budgetary adjustments that have had dire consequences on both their societies, with the younger generation and pensioners feeling the pinch in particular.

However, despite strong criticism from opposition parties and the general public that have had their fill of austerity measures, political parties responsible for the cuts still win elections. For example, the PSD in Portugal and, if the polls are to be believed, what is predicted to happen with the People’s Party (PP) in Spain.

In reality though, it is very difficult to predict what will actually happen when Spaniards go out to vote on 20 December. The latest figures published by the Centre for Sociological Research paints the following picture: PP (29.1%), Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) (25.3%), Ciudadanos (14.7%) and Podemos (10.8%).

Despite the close-run nature of the polls, it does however seem likely that no candidate will win a majority, as was the case in Portugal.

Coalitions and pacts will be necessary for anyone wanting to form a government in Madrid, which will pose new challenges for a system that is very much accustomed to strong bipartisanship, and which has seen four absolute majorities in the 11 elections held in the last three decades.

The question is what kind of coalition will emerge from the elections. More interesting still, will anyone try to form a minority government as Coelho tried to do in Portugal?

On the one hand, the Ciudadanos party (Citizens), led by Albert Rivera, will play a crucial role in the upcoming vote. Defined as being “of the centre”, Ciudadanos may well find itself holding the deciding vote as to who becomes Prime Minister. However, Rivera revealed that if his party does not come out as the winner, it will remain in opposition and reject any post-election agreements.

On the other hand, attempts by parties and movements of the Spanish left to form a “Left bloc”, as in Portugal, have not materialised, due to reluctance on the part of Podemos.

Moreover, it is unlikely that Podemos would put power in the hands of the Socialists. The PSOE, despite no public statements, seems to have more in common with Ciudadanos than Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos party, more so now that the latter has declined in the polls.

Even more significant is the fact that ideological differences have not turned out to be the determining factor in the Spanish debate, 40 days before the general election. The political parties have put themselves in a position to offer answers to the now unavoidable territorial issue, given the major step taken by the Catalan parliament on Monday (9 November), when it voted to adopt a declaration of secession.

Portugal’s political outlook could have offered Madrid some indication of what might occur in Spain, but the comparison is probably of little use given the novel situation Lisbon finds itself in, and the huge uncertainty provided by the Catalan issue, which for the first time in three decades of democracy may lead to the Spanish constitution being amended.

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