• Gurmat Singh Brar

Elections in Portugal: Is the Center Left Returning to Europe?

The start of October brought another relief to the conditions of Europe’s centre-left. Portugal’s Socialists cemented their position by winning the country’s general elections, despite falling short of the absolute majority by 10 seats. The result did not surprise political analysts. Primarily due to the strong credentials of the incumbent Prime Minister Antonio Costa (pictured above).

After forming the coalition government in 2015, Mr Costa has led a minority government with the support of the Left Bloc and the Communists, while still managing to bring Portugal’s budget deficit down to nearly zero. This won him praise back home, and above all in Brussels, as the Portuguese economy has since been growing faster than the EU average. Though he would have preferred to have won an outright majority, his Socialist Party (PS) did increase it’s seat share from 86 to 106. Most of these gains came at the cost of the centre-right’s decline from the previous elections.

But it is not the right which Mr Costa was worried about, but the more extreme left parties within the coalition. The survival of this unprecedented coalition, popularly called the geringonça – or improvised solution, did surprise skeptics. Unlike its neighbour Spain, which has witnessed failed coalitions and four snap elections since 2015, Portugal has grown economically and attracted investment because of its political stability.

Whether this coalition survives another term is a matter of speculation, but the symbolism of this victory can be scrutinised in the current context. The Portuguese case is a better example of the problems that centre-left faces, rather than its apparent resurgence.

Since the rise of populist parties and leaders across the world, the field of political science has seen a explosion of literature explaining the reasons for their emergence. For one, it is certain that this novel amalgamation of authoritarianism and nationalism has overtaken the political discourse across continents. The space for the centre, or in this case the centre-left, has shrunk considerably. In this new political climate centred around national security, the centre-left is failing to present a counter narrative to nationalism, which has virtually been monopolised by populists. This was the case in recent general elections in India and Israel. The centre-left in the form of the Indian National Congress and the Labour were decimated by the consistent nationalist propaganda by the right in both countries.

The shift of political discourse from economics to national security has also created internal contradictions within the left. The traditional right, which espoused free-markets and conservative societal values, is now marginalized by a more aggressive atavistic form of nationalism centred around a populist leader. This has an impact on the policies and visions which the left now decides to embody. In this transformation, it faces a dilemma—remain centrists and get accused of being soft on the right, or reorient to a more leftist leaning, and risk being seen as too radical in the eyes of the electorate. The case in point being the Democratic Party in the United States. The ongoing presidential candidate debates just expose these rising rifts between the broader left movement. There is little in common between Joe Biden and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez beyond their opposition to President Donald Trump. But that is precisely what the Democratic Party will need to consider in order to present a serious alternative to the relatively simple vision of Mr Trump’s populist appeal.

So why need the centre-left in the first place? After all, it seems this group is not only outdated but is incapable of competing with this new far-right. This is a question that many young people ask themselves. And this is why younger voters are much more likely to vote for someone like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. Socialism today is not a bad word for many youngsters in the west, even if the cost entails of being seen as radical. This intergenerational difference between the younger voter who tends to be more leftist, and the elder who tends to vote for the right, has ossified in Europe more than anywhere across the world. In Britain for example, Brexit has exposed the ideological difference between generations, as much of the Brexiteer vote came from rural middle aged voters, while urban professionals voted for remain.

But this increasing shift towards a more extreme form of politics is certainly not good for democracy. In their recent book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue against this shift towards polarities on both the left and right. Democracies function on the principle of mutual toleration. Political adversaries do have differences, but there needs to exist a general consensus over political norms, such as forbearance and toleration of opposition when in power. The problem with people shifting to more extremes, is that political differences become existential ones, and this creates incentives for the political system to become more competitive. This is why we need the centre today, as its resurgence of centrist politics will solve the existing divisions within populations. Through this lens, the resurgence of the centre-left in Europe does seem as a good sign. But it still needs to address fundamental issues which it has conveniently ignored in the past.

In his recent book—which is yet to translated into English but is certainly making waves across the world—Thomas Piketty makes a convincing case that the problem for the centre-left may be more profound. The current crisis of the centre-left and the subsequent rise of populists can be traced back to the last two decades. He makes the case that parties across the spectrum have been catering to the elites. Thus, elitism has become the norm for both the right and the left. The difference lies in the form of elites these parties cater to. While the intellectual elites have taken over the broader centre-left movements across the world, which until recently represented working class interests, the centre-right has been catering to business elites. Hence, populism represents the backlash of the working classes against this generalized form of elitist politics.

If Piketty’s analysis is correct, then the centre-left requires a serious amount of interposition. It is facing an existential crisis and needs to reorient its values according to the challenges of twenty-first century. This requires centre-left parties to present coherent strategies to tackle climate change, rising inequality, migration etc. - issues which it is accused of being soft on by the more leftist section dominated by the youth. Paradoxically, this implies that to present stronger policy solutions, the centre-left will inevitably have to shrink and give way to the left. If that is the case, then the current trajectory of politics may force us to change the nature of the already ambiguous categories like centre and left. Therefore, at the current juncture it is fair to speculate that it is going to be a tough road ahead for centre-left parties across the world. Europe is certainly witnessing a resurgence of centre-left parties, but these political shifts do not represent the long term shifts of politics in the continent. Will this have a negative impact on already weakened democracies as Ziblatt and Levistky argue, is at the moment pure speculation. What is certain is that presently not all is good for the centre-left.

In Portugal’s case, the coalition led by PS will try to remain united for the time being. In the previous term, there did exist considerable differences between the Communists and the PS. But Mr Costa will be aware that he will have to tame his coalition partners. The rise of the extreme left Podemos in Spain and the recent gilets jaunes protest in France, will only contribute to his fears.

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

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About the Author

Gurmat Singh Brar is studying Political Science and International Relations as an undergraduate at Ashoka University. He is also an Affiliated Researcher at the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. His interests within the field range from comparative study of institutions to analysing quantitative data on political parties in north India. He is also deeply interested in issues surrounding human rights and has previously worked in the state Human Rights Commission and the Information Commission. Currently, he is focusing on studying the rise of Populism internationally, so you can expect many articles on crucial elections across the world.

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