LISBON — The Socialist Party of Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa scored a comfortable victory in Sunday’s general election but failed to secure an absolute majority in parliament.
The result opens up the possibility of a renewal of Costa’s partnership with parties on the far left, which has allowed a Socialist minority government to rule for the past four years.
“The Socialist Party has clearly won this election and strengthened its political position,” Costa told cheering supporters in the early hours of Monday morning. “The Portuguese want a new, stronger Socialist government, able to govern with stability.”
The Socialists won 36.6 percent of the vote with over 99 percent of stations reporting, followed by the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 27.9 percent, its worst result since 1983.
With the smaller conservative CDS-People’s Party (CDS-PP) getting just 4.2 percent, the night was a serious reversal for Portugal’s mainstream right.
On the left, the old-school Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) saw its support drop to a historic low of 6.5 percent and the Left Bloc, a media-savvy, urban-based party, confirmed its position as Portugal’s third party, falling slightly to 9.7 percent.
Those two leftist parties have supported Costa’s government since 2015, when the Socialists came second behind the united center-right but managed to build a left-wing majority in parliament. Costa said he would again reach out to the far left to form a government.
“The Portuguese like the ‘geringonça,’” Costa said, referring to the name given to his deal with the leftists in 2015, meaning a “rickety contraption.” He added: “We are looking with our parliamentary partners to renew the political solution that the Portuguese have shown they want to continue.”
Two weeks before the election, polls indicated Costa could achieve an absolute majority that would enable the Socialists to govern alone. But his lead was eroded by revelations of a scandal involving the theft of weapons from an army base and alleged collusion with a criminal gang to secure their recovery, which have seen a former Socialist defense minister facing criminal charges. Still, Costa’s party is set to see its representation rise to at least 106 seats from 85 in parliament.
Leaders of both the Left Bloc and PCP indicated they are willing to continue working with Costa’s Socialists, but laid down demands for wage hikes, increased public spending and enhanced labor rights.
“The Left Bloc is here ready to negotiate a solution that offers stability to the country, restoring salaries, pensions and rights,” said party leader Catarina Martins.
Costa also mentioned other potential partners for his Socialists: the People Animals and Nature (PAN) party, an animal rights group, which was on course to capture 3.2 percent of the vote and quadruple its representation to four places in the 230-seat Assembleia da República; and Free, a breakaway from the Left Bloc, which elected a single lawmaker, Joacine Katar Moreira, the first black woman to lead a party into a Portuguese election.
“This is a clear victory for the Socialist Party, they have more authority to negotiate agreements in parliament accords than in 2015,” Ricardo Ferreira Reis, polling center director at Lisbon’s Católica University, told RTP television. “This result can be seen as a vote for a government led by the Socialist Party with parliamentary support or in coalition with other forces on the left.”
Costa’s party also bucked the trend of European Socialist decline thanks to a voter-friendly blend of pro-growth policies and commitment to eurozone fiscal responsibility rules.
Finance Minister Mário Centeno has engineered historically low budget deficits as exports, tourism and internal demand gave the economy four consecutive years of expansion.
“We would like this change in Portugal to spread to other countries in Europe because we would have a better Europe,” Pedro Nuno Santos, housing and infrastructure minister, said to reporters as the results were coming in. He told Italian journalists in the media scrum that Socialists in their country must “address the Italian people, not just the elite.”
European Socialists were quick to send their congratulations. “Portuguese society chooses again stability, equality and social justice,” said Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez. “With the victory of the Socialist Party, they’re betting on a project of the left, progressives and modernizers. Let’s continue working together for a fairer Europe.”
Support for the right also splintered, to the benefit of two very different new parties.
The Liberal Initiative, a youthful low-tax outfit, is set to send one deputy to parliament for the first time. And Portugal’s much-vaunted immunity to Europe’s far-right wave was interrupted by the election of a debut representative from the nationalist Enough party, which scored 1.3 percent.
“This is an historic occasion, it will be the first time in 45 years that a party with these characteristics enters the assembly,” Enough’s leader André Ventura told reporters.
Although the election of the far right casts a shadow over Costa’s victory, Socialist loyalists partied at their election night headquarters in a Lisbon hotel. Cries of “Victory, victory” echoed around the room.
With the Left Bloc on 19 seats, the Communists on 12 and the PAN with four, Costa would seem to have a number of options with which to form a new version of the “geringonça.”
Meanwhile, as the results showed the CDS-PP’s representation was cut to five seats from 18, the conservative party’s leader Assunção Cristas announced she was stepping down.
The abstention rate rose to 47 percent from 44 percent, in part because of a change that automatically placed over 1.2 million overseas Portuguese on the electoral roll. Previously they had to register. Emigrants represent over 10 percent of the electorate, and rarely turn out to vote.
Final results are expected in several days when votes are counted from the diaspora, which elects four members to the assembly.
This article has been updated.