Testing the Mood on the Azores

The Azores – nine picturesque islands in the Atlantic Ocean, recently called on 228,000 voters to elect 57 members of their regional parliament. But why are the regional elections on the Azores of interest, even in Brussels? Because the vote on 25 October is a first confidence test for the Portuguese government since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and could set an example for future elections at national level.

Portugal’s socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa hoped that the election would legitimise his political course and his model of a tolerated minority government, supported by the Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU), an alliance of post-communists and Greens, and the Left Bloc (BE). Since the 1970s, Portugal has been alternately dominated by the same political forces, the “Partido Socialista” (PS, social democratic), the “Partido Social Democrata” (PSD, centre-right conservative), sometimes with the support of the Christian Democrats (CDS). In this respect, Portugal resisted the trend of a general decline in social democracy in Europe for many years. Until now, until the regional elections in the Azores.

The Socialists won again, but surprisingly and for the first time in two decades, lost an absolute majority in the regional parliament. Contrary to predictions, the party recorded a drop to 39.1% in the region – the worst result in 24 years – and lost five parliamentary seats. The conservative opposition party PSD gained three points and with almost 34% of the votes it was able to increase the number of its members in the regional parliament from 19 to 21. While the equally conservative CDS maintained its status as third largest party, the communist PCP missed its chance to enter the regional parliament. The balance of power has shifted: the right-wing parties now have a majority over the left with 29 votes to 28. The old and new president of the government of the Azores, Vasco Cordeiro, faces a period of political juggling. In a first reaction to the election results, he spoke of a “new and challenging parliamentary framework”.

In any case, dealing with the right-wing populist party “Chega” (“Enough”), which for the first time provides two MPs with 5.3% of the vote, will be challenging. The party’s objectives include the chemical castration of paedophiles, forced labour for prisoners and the restriction of the posts of Prime Minister and President of the Republic to “people born in Portugal”. These are unusual tones, especially for Portugal, which has so far been completely spared from populist narratives. But it is also a warning shot for what could follow at the national level. Whether it is a reversal of the trend, however, will be seen in future elections, because unlike in Italy and large parts of Europe, right-wing populists have so far played no role in Portugal.

Liberalism is Alive!

But there is also good news: For the first time, the “Iniciativa Liberal” (IL), founded in 2017, won almost two percent of the vote and gained a parliamentary mandate. This is the first time that a citizen-centred, liberal party is represented in the regional parliament of the Azores. In 2019, the “Liberal Initiative” achieved 1.29 per cent in the Portuguese parliamentary elections, and with João Cotrim de Figueiredo, it provides a member of parliament (there is no formal percentage threshold in Portugal). The IL is now also a member of the “Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe” (ALDE). The programmatic basis of the party, which advocates for less state and more freedom (“Menos Estado, Mais Liberdade”), is the manifesto “More Liberal Portugal” (“Manifesto Portugal Mais Liberal”). Although the former euro-crisis country has recovered economically in recent years, thanks to fiscal policy discipline, Portugal is suffering from bureaucratisation of economic life and high national debt. Political disenchantment and scepticism are widespread among large sections of the population, as exemplified by the low voter turnout of 45.4% in the regional elections.

On top of this, there are now the consequences of the Corona pandemic: like the rest of the country, the island has relatively little industry. Tourism is the only source of income in some areas and as such has collapsed completely. In view of rising infection rates in Portugal, a new state of emergency is already being discussed, as the health system has reached the limits of its capacity due to the austerity measures of recent years. A strengthened political liberalism in Portugal could – beyond the traditional right-left divide – point to alternative approaches that focus on the individual citizen. This includes approaches like the fact that in the current health crisis, state provision of public services need not be the only solution. There is still a long way to go, but a well-established liberal party, with its commitment to tolerance, human rights and the rule of law, would help to remove the breeding ground for burgeoning populism in Portugal.

Rahel Zibner is project assistant for the Mediterranean countries Spain, Portugal and Italy in the project office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Madrid.