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LISBON — Sunday’s Portuguese general election has suddenly turned into a cliff-hanger.
Prime Minister António Costa is fighting for his political life after a late surge by the center-right opposition has clawed away his Socialist Party’s (PS) once comfortable poll lead.
“I think António Costa is, in effect, on the verge of losing the elections,” Rui Rio, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD), told reporters Tuesday. “He’s had a long political career and should lose with dignity.”
When campaigning kicked off, Costa appeared to be cruising to victory.
Some polls gave the Socialists a 10-point lead. The only uncertainty seemed to be whether the PS would win an absolute majority or be forced to seek partners to govern — as it has over the past six years.
Rio has upended that scenario. “Are these the tightest elections of the century?” asked one paper Thursday — though it concluded that 2002 was tighter.
POLITICO’s Poll of Polls still has the Socialists 5 points ahead on 37 percent. But some polls this week have the gap much smaller. A couple have the PSD ahead for the first time.
PORTUGAL NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
Under Rio, the Social Democrats have made a habit of upsetting the odds. The PSD came from behind last year to boot the Socialists out of the Azores regional government and the Lisbon mayor’s office.
Rio has managed to unify an often-fractious party since fending off a leadership challenge in December. A former mayor of Porto, he’s distanced himself from the unpopular austerity policies imposed by the last center-right government in the early 2010s.
Critics on the right have long accused the opposition leader of being too soft on the minority Socialist government, but Rio’s moderate approach appears to be paying off with middle-of-the-road voters.
He’s also scored points with a wisecracking campaign style.
His cat, Zé Albino, shot to media stardom after Rio posted a tweet suggesting feline discontent at an animal rights party chumming up with the Socialists. That got other candidates scurrying to drag their pets into the campaign.
If the polls are right, neither party will secure a majority and whoever wins will struggle to build a working government alliance.
Costa has relied on the Portuguese Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc to underpin two minority Socialist administrations since 2015. But the far left turned against him in October, precipitating the snap election by voting down the government’s 2022 budget bill.
Patching up relations will be difficult, even if the left wins overall.
“The Socialist Party rejected all our proposals, they did not want to make any compromises with the left,” Left Bloc leader Catarina Martins told foreign correspondents this month. “There was enormous intransigence.”
On the right, Rio is open to a coalition government with the conservative CDS-People’s Party, which is in sharp decline, and the new pro-market Liberal Initiative.
But they have little chance of building a majority without Chega, a far-right upstart. Its extreme proposals have included tougher COVID confinement rules for ethnic minorities and castrating sex offenders.
Rio insists he won’t bring Chega into government. However, he has expressed willingness to head a minority government propped up by parliamentary support from the far right. That model is already in place in the Azores regional assembly.
Costa is playing up fears that a vote for the PSD could bring the far right close to the levers of power.
“It’s a pity that Rui Rio is willing to be hostage to Chega,” Costa told reporters this week. “I don’t think a government that’s hostage to the far right is healthy for our democracy.”
Portugal long held out against the rise of far-right politics in Europe. But Chega’s leader André Ventura, who won the party’s first parliamentary seat in 2019, has made radical nationalism a political force for the first time since the toppling of four decades of Fascist-style dictatorship in 1974.
Chega is polling at around 7 percent. Ventura will claim victory if his party manages to leapfrog the Left Bloc and PCP to become the third-largest force in the Assembleia da República.
Despite the rise of Chega and other new parties — including Liberal Initiative, the animal rights group PAN and left-wingers Livre — Portugal’s mainstream parties are faring better than in many other European countries.
The two pro-European centrist parties who have dominated Portuguese politics since the 1970s are expected to increase their overall score and total around 70 percent on Sunday.
In contrast, the combined vote of Spain’s main center-left and center-right parties totaled below 49 percent in the last election; their Italian counterparts tallied 33 percent; and France’s once-mighty Socialists and Republicans got a mere 24 percent.
Fear of pushing voters to the extremes makes Costa and Rio wary of “grand coalition” talk, but they are open to lower-key cooperation, particularly in areas like Europe or pandemic response.
“On some big issues there is consensus between the main center-right parties and the main party on the center left,” noted António Costa Pinto, professor of politics and contemporary European history at ISCTE — University Institute of Lisbon.
“We shouldn’t forget that despite the Socialist Party having partners entrenched on the left, 65 percent of the Socialist Party’s legislation was approved with support in parliament from the Social Democratic Party,” he added. “I wouldn’t overdramatize the impact of a political crisis on Portugal’s political, social or economic fundamentals.”
Costa Pinto thinks the most likely outcome Sunday will be a narrow Socialist victory and another minority government for Costa.
There is broad public approval of the government’s handling of the pandemic and its economic impact, but Costa alienated voters by pushing too hard for an absolute majority at the start of the campaign.
That revived unhappy memories of the last Socialist majority government — from 2005 to 2009 under Prime Minister José Sócrates, now widely reviled despite a judge dropping most of the charges against him in a corruption, tax evasion and money-laundering scandal.
Whoever wins, Costa Pinto believes the narrow margin and lack of parliamentary majority means they won’t survive for a full four-year term and will face another early election in a couple of years.
That’s a shaky base for a government tasked with leading the country out of the pandemic, modernizing the economy and ensuring effective spending of the €16.6 billion due under the European Union’s Recovery and Resilience Plan.
To ensure stablity, Costa says he’s willing to work with any party, except Chega.
“We’ll negotiate everything, one measure at a time,” he said during a televised debate with Rio. “I know what that’s like: it’s difficult, everything takes more time, it’s not what the country wants. But it is possible.”