Costa plays for power in a divided Portugal

The day that Antonio Costa (Lisbon, 1961) saw that doll, a cow with wings, he knew it was what he was looking for to explain how those political scenarios that seem impossible, sometimes they become reality. It was the month of May 2016 and half a year had passed since the Portuguese prime minister had reached a government agreement with the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), the two formations to the left of the Socialist Party (PS). In a public act, Costa handed over the winged vaquita to his Minister of the Presidency and Administrative Modernization, Maria Manuel Leitão. “Even cows can fly,” she said with a smile as she wound up the doll. She had found the perfect metaphor, according to several progressive sociologists, to refer to that unprecedented left pact that a conservative politician, Paulo Portas, had derogatorily baptized as geringonça, a useless junk. But the truth is that that dilapidated pileup did work. Costa’s cow flew for four years, until her wings stopped flapping and she collapsed.

Costa dreamed of reaching an absolute majority so as not to depend on third parties, a desire that has been fading over time

The legislative elections this Sunday in Portugal are the result of the definitive break between the PS and its leftist partners in October. The parliamentary rejection of the general budgets presented by Costa, and his refusal to negotiate changes with his former allies, precipitated the electoral advance. To avoid political instability, the president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa dissolved Parliament mid-session. At that time, Costa dreamed of reaching a absolute majority so as not to depend on third parties, a desire that has been fading over time.

The latest polls show a technical tie between the PS and the right-wing Social Democratic Party (PSD) of former Porto mayor Rui Rio. Both the Catholic University poll for public television (RTP) and the daily Publicas the survey of the weekly Expresso and the SIC channel grant a slight advantage to Costa (35%-36% of the votes) compared to Rio (33%), a difference that the margin of error of the samples would leave in technical tie. The third position is disputed by four parties that aspire to be the key to the future government. Each of them would be around 6% of the votes. On the left, the Bloco de Catarina Martins and the Unitarian Democratic Coalition (CDU), an alliance between the communists and the greens, arrive with similar support for the contest. The electoral campaign has confirmed the progressive advance of the extreme right of Chega (Basta), which until now only had its leader, André Ventura, in Parliament. Liberal Initiative is also fighting for that third place to become Rio’s main ally if it wins the elections.

Without the possibility of reaching an absolute majority, Costa’s options in case of obtaining the first place in the elections go through reissue a new agreement with the Bloco and the communistsO well rule in minority with the support of the PSD. They are scenarios that I did not glimpse a few months ago. The geringonça ended at the end of 2019, after legislative elections in which the Socialist Party came close to an absolute majority (108 deputies in a Parliament with 230 seats). From the 2015 legislative agreement, specific agreements were passed. The mutual mistrust between the leftist parties was gaining ground and the rope was broken during the last budget negotiations. Costa did not give in to the demands of his former allies to expand the social agenda and the right-wing opposition rubbed its hands by knocking down the budgets together with the BE and the PCP. Without public accounts, Portugal cannot dispose of the 16,000 million euros of recovery funds that Brussels has assigned to it.

Costa is considered the most astute politician in Portugal

Costa is considered the most astute politician of Portugal, a leader who is usually graceful in dialectical events. Seasoned as mayor of Lisbon for eight years (2007-2015) and previously as a minister in several administrations, his leadership among the socialists is unquestionable since he was appointed general secretary in 2014. Although he was behind the conservative Pedro Passos Coelho in the 2015 elections, the agreement with the Bloco and the PCP assured him the parliamentary majority to govern.

The wind in the polls was blowing in favor of Costa at the end of last year, with advantages of up to ten points over the PSD. Costa then dreamed of an absolute majority. If someone asked him about a possible reissue of the geringonça, the socialist leader looked the other way. As the days went by, that demoscopic wind changed direction. The PSD was reducing differences and Costa stopped talking about majorities. With the technical draw looming in the final stretch of the campaign, the political magician pulled a new strategy out of his hat. Now he was willing to make agreements with other parties, with the exception of Chega. He was betting on a government “with certainty.” Was the possibility of a new geringonça? Catarina Martins proposed a pre-election agreement to mobilize a discouraged left, an order to which Costa did not even respond.

Demobilization in pandemic

The demobilization of the electorate does not only affect the left. A high abstention is expected this Sunday, as happened a year ago in the presidential elections (with only 40% participation). The undecided (20%, according to surveys) will be decisive. Portugal is going through the fifth wave of the pandemic with saturated hospitals, more than 60,000 daily infections, a cumulative incidence similar to that of Spain (more than 3,000 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the last 14 days) and one million people (10% of the population) in isolation due to covid. Faced with the health crisis, the government allowed early voting (there is no postal vote in Portugal) and more than 300,000 people took advantage of this modality. Those who are in quarantine will be able to vote on Sunday late in the day.

A high abstention is expected this Sunday

The revelation of the electoral campaign has been Rui Rio, a leader whom many considered finished before the electoral call. But as columnist Lourenço Pereira joked in the weekly expresso, Rio seems to have as many lives as his cat Zé Albino. At the end of last year, the MEP won in the PSD primaries Paul Rangel, an emerging politician who seemed more suitable to beat Costa at the polls. Whether due to the exhaustion of the prime minister or due to the successes of his own campaign, the right wing candidate, who has promised a tax cut, arrives at the electoral appointment with the possibility of forming a government. He would have the support of the Liberal Initiative and the center-right CDS-Popular Party, natural allies but perhaps insufficient. Chega could be decisive in that equation. But Rio on Thursday ruled out an agreement with the ultras, although he has already agreed with them in the Azores regional government.

Meanwhile, Costa continues to play all bands. He has insisted that he will negotiate with the left, but “intermediate solutions” are not ruled out, as his foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, advanced in a debate: “They may result in a gentlemen’s agreement between the major parties to make life easier for those who form a government.” Rio picked up the gauntlet right away, but demanded that the agreement be reciprocal and hinted at some suspicions about his rival’s chivalry. A Costa who, in the opinion of the conservative leader, is already thinking about the second season of the geringonça. Or what is the same, in winding up her flying vaquita.

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