Prime minister wins big in Portugal’s general election

LISBON — Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa won an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s general election, winning a third straight term, with his Socialist Party securing an absolute majority in parliament.

“This is a special night for me,” Costa told the cheering fans. “The Portuguese have confirmed that they want a Socialist Party government for the next four years…they want stability, certainty and security.”

With almost all votes inThe Social Democrats (PS) won 41.7 percent, ahead of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) with 28 percent.

That gives the PS at least 117 seats in the 230-seat Assembleia da República.

Costa has headed minority governments backed by two far-left parties since 2015. Now he is expected to have a majority for the first time, reflecting voter support for the Socialists’ handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout.

However, the joy at PS headquarters was tempered by a sharp surge in support for the far right, which captured third place.

The socialist success belied recent opinion polls, which suggested the election was on the brink after a sudden surge in support for the PSD.

The PS won votes at the expense of its former far-left partners, who dumped Costa in October by blocking the government’s proposed 2022 budget and hastening snap elections.

Voter anger at the far left’s role in sparking the political crisis was a key factor in the left bloc falling to 4.5 percent from over 10 percent in 2019. The votes of the Portuguese Communist Party almost halved to 4.4 percent.

Both were overtaken by the rising far-right party Chega, which took third place with over 7 percent. It will have at least 12 lawmakers instead of just one.

Despite the huge lead, Costa pledged to work in dialogue with all parties other than Chega as he tries to pull the country out of the pandemic and enact investments and reforms to underpin the recovery.

“An absolute majority is not absolute power, it’s not about governing alone,” he said.

On the mainstream right, the results came as a major disappointment for PSD leader Rui Rio, who narrowed the Socialists’ opinion poll lead with a spirited campaign in the run-up to the vote.

“We haven’t come close to our goals,” Rio told fans. “The Socialist Party is the big winner tonight.”

Rio proposed stepping down as party leader. “I see no benefit if the PS has an absolute majority for the next four years,” he admitted.

He attributed the defeat to a split in the right with the emergence of Chega and the new pro-business Liberal Initiative party, which nearly quadrupled its vote to almost 5 percent.

With a dozen MPs, the extreme right will be a significant force in the Portuguese parliament for the first time since a 1974 revolution that ended the fascist dictatorship established by António Oliveira Salazar in the 1930s.

“This is bittersweet,” Chega leader André Ventura told reporters. “I’m happy with Chega’s growth, but … António Costa will remain prime minister.”

Though Chega was one of the clear winners of the day, the party’s result is well below the nearly 12 percent that Ventura won in the presidential election a year ago.

The new right-wing parties have put pressure on the PSD’s traditional ally, the conservative CDS People’s Party. A key force in the last centre-right government of 2011-2015, it looked unlikely to win any seats.

Costa’s victory was welcomed by the centre-left elsewhere in Europe. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez reacted quickly Tweet congratulations.

“Portugal has once again opted for a social democratic project combining growth and social justice,” he wrote. “Together we will continue to promote a socialist response to the common challenges in our countries and in Europe.”

Abstention was estimated at 42 percent, down nearly 10 points from the last election in 2019, despite pandemic restrictions.

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