Local Elections in Portugal Confirm Distrust of Political Parties

The electoral campaign was marked by various highs and lows which revealed the distrust in the political parties. The best example was the success achieved by the Facebook page Tesourinhos das Autárquicas, which satirises various election posters and other moments of the campaign, followed by more than 127,000 people.

The electoral campaign was marked by several ups and downs which have revealed distrust of the political parties. The best example was the success achieved by the Facebook page Tesourinhos das Autárquicas (Little Gems from the Local Elections), with more than 127,000 followers, which satirises various election posters (as in this image, PSD´s poster on a dumpster) and other moments from the campaign.

[All links lead to Portuguese-language pages unless otherwise noted.]

Despite most of the national and international media focusing on the defeat of the incumbent government party, the Social Democrats Party (PSD), in the Portuguese local elections, the truth is that the big losers are actually all of the political parties.

A look at the general results reveals some interesting figures, such as the abstention rate of 47.36 percent, the highest ever rate in local elections. As for those who did vote, 3.86 percent of the votes were left blank, spoilt votes made up 2.95 percent, and the votes for independent candidates reached 6.66 percent.

Numbers from the Local Elections shared by Paula Montez on Facebook.

Numbers from the Local Elections, shared by Paula Montez on Facebook. “Absent: 47.36%, Blank votes: 3.86%, Spoilt votes: 2.95%. Total: 54.17%. 4,679,063 constituents did not vote for anyone! And the parties still say they have been elected by the majority.”

Strangely, none of the party leaders in their declarations made after the results were announced made reference to the fact that the electoral party system has only won the support of less than half of the population.

Minister for Defence Aguiar Branco was the only one to point out that:

É muito perigoso pensar que a democracia pode viver sem partidos.

It is very dangerous to think that democracy can exist without parties.

The results don't seem to be worrying the main political party figures, but maybe it is the right time to rethink the electoral system, since it seems to be deteriorating. In 2011, Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva was voted in during an election in which 53.37 percent of the electorate abstained from voting, and in the parliamentary elections of the same year the abstention rate was 41.24 percent. The number of blank and spoilt votes has doubled since the last local elections in 2009.

Voters and candidates abstain from social networks

In social networks too, “the lack of interest in the almost two-week-long campaign was clear”, reported Público newspaper. The article by Hugo Torres highlights “the dangerous political indifference” of the voters, the fact that the “candidates did not know how to utilise Facebook to increase the interest of voters”, and further adds that “the absence of televised debates may have been the main factor in the silence of the web users”.

The television networks opted not to provide coverage of the electoral campaign because of their interpretation of a law laid down by the National Elections Commission (CNE), stipulating that all candidates, independent of their power or influence, receive equal treatment from the mass media.

The CNE also imposed limits on propaganda, including on social media, regardless if published by candidates or ordinary citizens, subject to penalty of a fine or up to six months in prison:

No dia e na véspera da eleição autárquica é proibido fazer propaganda, independentemente do meio utilizado, conforme prevê o artigo 177.º da Lei Eleitoral.

On the day and on the eve of the local elections, propaganda is prohibited, regardless of the means employed, as provided in Art. 177 of the Electoral Law [which is prior to the era of online social media].

Spoilt vote shared on Twitter by Manuel Portela (@ManuelP264)

Spoilt vote shared on Twitter by Manuel Portela (@ManuelP264). The voter inserted one extra option with the name of a football player and his team.

This could perhaps explain the fact that on the day of the elections, on Twitter, the hashtag #autárquicas2013 (local elections 2013) only started trending when the results started coming through. Even so, the use of the hashtag was criticised by some users, uninterested in the outcome of the elections.

Others took to Facebook to discuss the validity of the political system, such as the economist Vitor Lima:

O problema aqui é o sistema e não o governo que dele emana. Alguma coisa estava em vias de mudar com estas autárquicas? Creio que não. E por isso não votar ou votar branco/nulo é uma das escassas possibilidades de nos manifestarmos contra o sistema e a classe política, TODA ela unidinha na manutenção do sistema.

The system is the problem, not the government which results from the system. Was anything going to change with these local elections? I don't believe so. Thus, choosing not to vote, or leaving blank/spoilt votes, is one of the few ways in which we can protest against the system and the political class, all of whom are united in maintaining the [current] system.

Winners and losers

It is a fact that the incumbent PSD party received their worst results in the local elections in 20 years, but it is also a fact that the Socialist Party (PS), the biggest opposition party, lost some of its most important municipalities, such as Braga, Matosinhos, Évora and Beja.

It is worth mentioning that there was a record number of 80 independent candidates. Thirteen of these candidates were elected, but a large number of the independent candidates were previously associated with one of the parties or have already been mayors in the past. The most prominent case is that of Rui Moreira, who won the district of Porto, the second biggest city in the country. He was supported by the Popular Party (CDS-PP), which is one of the parties of the current coalition government, and whose candidates were elected in some municipalities in the north of the country (which is generally more conservative), one in Madeira where the electorate traditionally votes for PSD, and another in the Azores.

Also worth observing are some important victories of the CDU coalition made up of the Portuguese Communist Party and the Environmentalist Party “The Greens” – which is openly against the austerity measures and made this the main point of their campaign. The coalition managed to win back some important cities in the south of the country such as Évora and Beja, which they had lost to PS in the 2009 elections.

From abstention to Euro-scepticism

These were the first local elections since the 78 billion euro bailout (about 111 billion US dollars) and the coming of the so-called Troika to Portugal, which is composed of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission. The results of these elections are a clear demonstration of the discontent of the Portuguese population in relation to the conduct of the political parties, especially those who support the bailout and the austerity measures.

The senior members of the EU and the IMF are reviewing the conditions necessary to meet the targets, demanding even more cuts, and there is talk of the need for a second bailout. This would prolong a recession which has already lasted two and a half years, and has caused an increase in unemployment, reaching an official record level of more than 17 percent.  A rate that is higher than 27 percent, if we include those who are not registered at job centres, the so-called real unemployment figure. Youth unemployment, according to the latest information, is already more than 42 percent.

The European Parliament elections in May 2014 are highly likely to be one of the most important tests of the electoral participation of the citizens. These are traditionally the elections with the lowest turnout. In 2009, there was an abstention rate of 63.22 percent which, as well as demonstrating discontent with the party system, could point to an embarrassing Euro-sceptism.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the composition of the so-called Troika incorrectly included the European Union instead of the European Commission.

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