On Sunday, local elections were held in Portugal to elect mayors and district councils. This was an important test for two reasons: first, to understand the level of health of the Socialist government led by António Costa, and second, to give a concrete measure of the growth of the right-wing populist party Chega.
At first glance, the results are not entirely unfavorable for the Partido Socialista (PS), by far the leading party at the national level, which lost about 200,000 votes compared to 2017, going from 37% to 34%. Taking into account that the Socialists have led the government since 2015 and the Câmara Municipal of Lisbon since 2007, one might have expected greater disaffection from the electorate. André Venura’s Chega, while growing quite a bit compared to the 2019 national elections, when it took 1.29%, stopped at a very paltry 4%.
However, to get an idea of the national impact of the local elections, it is not enough to just look at the tables that summarize the overall numbers, but it is necessary to understand, above all, what the expectations were on the eve of the elections and to what extent they were met, or missed.
Something was being taken for granted above all: the re-election of the incumbent mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina (PS), who had an insurmountable lead in the polls over Carlos Moedas from Partido Social Democrata (center-right – PSD) of almost ten percentage points (37% vs. 28%). But no—surprisingly, Moedas won by just 1,400 votes. The center-left got about 200,000 votes in the capital, compared to the 350,000 it got in 2017. Basically, more than a victory for the center-right, this was a bitter defeat for Medina himself, whose magnitude is still difficult to assess.
It is probably still too early to understand the reasons for such a substantial hemorrhage of votes. What is certain is that in recent years, Lisbon has experienced a real estate earthquake of epic proportions. House prices have risen steadily from €1,000 per square meter in the Avenida Almirante Reis neighborhood to €3-4,000 or even €5,000. In many areas of the center, the cost of an apartment easily exceeds €10,000 per square meter. It is impossible to buy anything for less than €2,500 per square meter.
Everything possible has been done to attract foreign investors and foreign professionals who can afford an investment that often exceeds €500,000, leaving the suburbs to the middle classes and only despair to the weaker classes. Above all, there are the tax deductions, in favor not only of pensioners, but anyone who decides to transfer their residence to Portugal. As happens in every earthquake, the effects have spread over a wide radius. And thus, house prices have skyrocketed in a large part of the country. Many promises have been made to put a stop to a phenomenon that has taken on the connotations of a real exodus, but in the end, very little has been done.
Therefore, the initial question remains unanswered: what about the health of the government? From a symbolic point of view, the election for the mayor of the capital plays a crucial role in the overall perception of who really has the support of the majority of the citizens, regardless of what happened in the rest of the country. Moedas’ victory could therefore turn into a victory for the SDP in the long run.
The center-right is not very strong, but not so weak as to allow Venura to grow. This is good news, because, as the French and Italian cases show, a strong populist right forces a concentration of the vote around those forces able to act as bulwark against anti-system groups, thus upsetting the normal democratic game. In this context, the Bloco de Esquerda and the Partido Comunista Português, although they were bruised and battered at the polls, are not at risk of extinction for now.