The 1999 and 2001 elections in Portugal

Stewart Lloyd-Jones

Electoral Studies 21 (2002), pp. 115-122

The 1999 elections in Portugal were contested in a strange atmosphere of political ambivalence yet intense popular activity. The outcome of the elections appeared to be in little doubt, with opinion polls consistently predicting that the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) would emerge with its first-ever absolute majority in parliament. However, the domestic campaign was often eclipsed by other events. First, the eruption of a post-referendum conflict in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor came to dominate the news reports, prompting thousands of Portuguese to pour onto the streets in a wave of popular demonstrations on a scale not seen since the heady days of 1975. Events in Timor were then overshadowed when the fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, died. The outbreak of national mourning that followed the diva’s death was without parallel, and the media quickly cleared the front pages and broadcasting schedules to express the nation’s grief.

1. Election campaign

The political campaign was very low key, with neither the ruling PS nor the opposition Social Democrats (Partido Social Democrata, PSD) willing to put forward any imaginative proposals for reforms. António Guterres, the PS leader and Prime Minister preferred—probably with one eye on Portugal’s upcoming presidency of the EU—to emphasise his image as a safe pair of hands at the head of a government that ‘did not take risks’ (Lima, 1999). The PSD’s recently elected leader, Durão Barroso, was clearly preoccupied trying to control the feuding endemic in the party since Cavaco Silva’s resignation. His party was therefore muted and offered a programme that was barely distinguishable from that of the PS. Barroso was under extreme pressure since the man he had replaced as leader, Marcelo Rebelo da Sousa, and the perennial pretender, Pedro Santana Lopes, had both stated that he was on probation. The PSD leader was thus aware that any failure would inevitably lead to a serious leadership challenge.[1] The smaller parties, the Communists (Partido Comunista Português, PCP) and the Popular Party (Partido Popular, PP) found it difficult to galvanise public opinion. The PCP was intent on maintaining the momentum it had achieved in the recent European elections, while the PP put forward a programme that favoured pensioners and farmers. The recently formed Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE), a coalition of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (PSR), the Democratic Union (UDP) and Política XXI, had emerged as a political force before the European elections. Standing on a ‘radical’ programme that included the legalisation of abortion, the BE hoped to offer an alternative to those tired of the rightwards drift of the established parties and to attract a sizeable proportion of the urban youth vote.

2. Election results

The first real surprise of the election arrived only with the results, shown in Table 1. Contrary to all expectations, the PS won just 44.4% of the vote, a mere half a percentage point increase on its share in the 1995 election. Moreover, the three new PS deputies resulting from this minor advance were not enough to give the party their much-anticipated majority.

Socialists (PS)2 380 66944.4115
Social Democrats (PSD)1 748 42232.681
Communist/Green (CDU)485 3379.017
Popular (PP)450 7068.415
Left Bloc (BE)132 0462.52
Others102 9831.90
Spoiled ballots56 8521.1 
Turnout5 363 90661.8 
Abstentions3 309 91638.2 
Table 1: Results of the legislative elections in Portugal, 10 October 1999

Dismay within PS ranks on election night was palpable, with many regarding the result as little more than defeat. One leading party spokesman was candid in his criticism of the party’s tactics: ‘it is obvious that we have to change our style’.[2] Another observer remarked: ‘on 10 October, the Prime Minister’s image was excellent, but it lacked any political content … In the eyes of many Portuguese, and many of those who had voted PS in 1995, Guterres did not deserve an absolute majority … Despite the PS obtaining its best-ever result, Guterres emerged on the 11th in a much weaker position’ (Lima, 1999). The plain fact was that the PS had lost more than 186 000 votes, and the most worrying aspect for some leading internal critics was that the 49 000 votes taken from the PSD and the PP on the right were more than cancelled out by the 55 000 votes lost to the PCP and the BE on the left. Manuel Alegre, one of Guterres’ most eloquent critics within the party, immediately argued that the PS must abandon its infatuation with the ‘Blairite “third way”’ and return to a left-wing programme. This view was publicly shared by the Mayor of Lisbon and a potential successor as party leader, João Soares (son of former prime minister and president, Mário Soares).[3]

Yet despite the gloom that descended on the Socialist Party following the results, Guterres had led the party to a number of significant victories. Not only was it the first time that the PS had won two consecutive parliamentary elections, but it also obtained a record share of the vote and number of seats: 115 out of a possible 230. In truth the PS had performed well, just not as well as had been hoped given the pre-election polls.

3. Discussion

A turnover analysis of the vote between 1995 and 1999 reveals that many of the ‘explanations’ for the PS’s failure to achieve an absolute majority are ill-founded.[4] Some have argued that the general expectation of a PS victory led many of the party’s supporters to stay at home.[5] Others have suggested that the electorate had displayed an incredible degree of sophistication in voting tactically to prevent Guterres from obtaining a majority.[6] Both explanations suggest that the PS was penalised relative to the other parties.

Yet the statistics paint a very different picture. Looking at voter loyalty, we find that the PSD retained 84.6% of its 1995 support, while the PS held on to 86.9%, second only to the PCP’s 87.7%. The PP fared worst of all, retaining only 81.4%. Similar patterns are evident when we look at the proportion of each party’s 1995 support abstaining in 1999. Here we see that 12.7% of the PSD’s support abstained in 1999, compared to 11.6% for the PP, 10.8% for the PS, and 10.7% for the PCP. When we examine the net transfer of votes between the main parties as a proportion of their 1995 support, we see that the PCP again emerge as victors with a 4.4% net gain, followed by the PS, PSD, and PP with net losses of 0.4%, 1.4% and 6.9%, respectively.[7]

The two parties of the right appear to be in a more perilous situation than the PS. The PSD, long the major party in Portugal, seems unable to stem the tide running against it. Durão Barroso’s decision to focus the PSD’s campaign on the PP was widely attacked by his opponents within the party who believed that the real danger came from the PS. These internal criticisms appear to have been wholly justified, with the PS making real advances into traditional PSD territory, which more than outweighed any gains made from the PP. Similarly, Barroso’s attempt to persuade the President to postpone the elections at the height of the East Timor crisis was generally perceived to have been an admission that the PSD’s leadership believed they could not mount a serious challenge to the PS.

Divisions within the PSD are, of course, an integral part of the party’s organisation. Previous leaders, such as Cavaco Silva, owed a large part of their success to their ability to moderate between the factions. However, Cavaco’s legacy was short-lived, and his departure threw the party into a prolonged period of disarray with three different leaders in four years. The last of these, Barroso, was elected following Marcelo Rebelo da Sousa’s resignation in February 1999 as a result of bitter internal opposition to the formation of an electoral alliance with the PP—the very short-lived Alternativa Democrática (Democratic Alternative, AD). With Barroso owing his election to opponents of this alliance and having very little time in which to heal the wounds, the PSD effectively lurched into the elections with the sole aim of limiting the damage. Whether he will be given the time to stamp his authority on the party remains to be seen, although there are signs that he may be gradually gaining control of the situation.

The PP had also had a difficult time between the elections of 1995 and 1999. Being a small party with little chance of becoming the government, the PP was able to present a moderately radical programme without fear of ever having to implement it. The PP’s main objectives in the election were to hold on to what it already had and to prevent any slippage in its vote to either the PS or the PSD. The main threat to the PP was clear throughout the campaign as the PSD aimed all of its big guns directly at it. The collapse of the AD earlier in the year had left the PP’s soft underbelly exposed to the PSD which could and did argue that the only party capable of preventing another PS victory was the PSD and that it was the duty of the Portuguese right to recognise this and to vote accordingly. Nevertheless, despite losing 21 000 voters to the PSD, and seeing its share of the vote decline to 8.4%, the PP managed to hold on to the 15 seats that it had won in 1995 and attracted the third-highest number of first-time voters. This allowed the PP to claim that it had in fact won a small victory.

The PCP was able to take a great deal of pleasure out of the election results. For a party that appeared to be in terminal decline, and whose Alentejano heartland had been succumbing to the PS, the PCP actually increased its share of the vote, consolidating the third place it had won in the European election. It also gained an additional two deputies in the Setúbal district, denying the PS its majority, managed to win votes in the north of the country, and retained the loyalty of more of their previous supporters than any other party. Nevertheless, Carlos Carvalhas, who is trying to modernise the PCP and to reduce the influence of its former leader, Ávaro Cunhal, has a daunting task on his hands: while the party may be successful in picking up disillusioned left-wing PS supporters, it remains to be seen if these new voters will stay with the PCP in the future, or if they were simply protest votes. The fact that a large number of new PCP voters were in the north, where the party would not normally expect to do well, suggests that the PCP benefited from the protest votes of many who had previously voted PS. Another concern for the PCP’s leadership must be the party’s continuing decline in its traditional heartland, the Alentejo, and in particular in Évora and southern Beja, where its support fell by more than 10-percentage points overall.[8] Even more worrying must be the inability of the party to attract young voters: it won only 4.8% of first-time voters.

A new dimension was introduced into the electoral process with the emergence of the BE, which gained two deputies in Lisbon and came within a whisker of winning a third in Oporto. Much has been made of the new coalition’s breakthrough, with comparisons being made with the short-lived PRD, which had obtained 4% in 1985—so denying the PS an electoral victory—before melting away to insignificance in the 1987 elections. Whether the BE will be as transient as its predecessor is, of course, a matter for conjecture; even so, its performance, particularly in Lisbon, surprised many. However, the BE, such as it presently exists, made no impact in the rural interior, and, despite promoting policies designed to appeal to the young, was the least successful of all the parties in attracting first-time voters: 4% compared to the PS’s 25.7% and even the PP’s 6.4%.

4. Abstentions

With every party claiming a moral victory, and with the party everyone had expected to win winning, attention was focused on the 3.3 million abstentions, which represents 38.2% of the electorate.

Abstention rates in Portugal, in common with most western democracies, have risen inexorably since the first democratic elections in 1975. On every occasion, analysts have sought to explain why,[9] and to determine whether or not the divorce of one-third of the electorate from the political class is a cause for concern or whether it can be taken as a sign that all is well with the system. Amongst the many causes suggested, the idea that the Portuguese party system has reduced politics to a matter of economics and social wellbeing seems to dominate. One analyst has suggested that as ‘important matters were never discussed’ (Corkill, 2000), combined with Guterres’ image as a steady leader, had created a feeling that there was no crisis that needed to be resolved. Yet, as noted earlier, there is little evidence to support the suggestion that the PS was the main victim of these abstentions; nor can we say with any certainty that abstention is mostly due to voter contentment, as some have suggested.[10]

Whilst it is not possible to provide a definitive reason for rising abstention rates in such a young democracy, there can be little doubt that it is a problem that all the Portuguese parties will have to grapple with sooner rather than later. As the demographics show that first-time voters are the least likely to participate in the electoral process, abstention levels may well become an urgent concern.

5. Prospects

Despite failing to obtain a parliamentary majority, the position of António Guterres’ government appears to be safe. Those to the left of the PS have made their point that the government should be more conciliatory towards the other left-wing parties, and that it should seek to promote more left-wing policies. There can be little doubt that the left has been placed in a difficult position; while they can criticise the government, they cannot afford to undermine it. As a result, criticism from the PS’s left-wing has been largely muted, and Guterres is being allowed to govern without too many problems.

The PSD has continued to self-destruct, culminating in a lengthy and damaging leadership challenge at the party conference in February 2000, in which Barroso only narrowly defeated his challengers. With his position as party leader still somewhat precarious, and with internal party conflicts still plaguing the PSD, there has been little sign yet of the emergence of an opposition that is capable of hurting the government. The smaller PP has continued much as before, although for much of the year it had been locked in conflict with the PSD over its decision to put forward its own candidate for the 2001 Presidential elections.

The PCP and the BE, both with very capable deputies, have been extremely active. Yet despite their wish to land some blows on the government, their main goal is to encourage elements within the PS to support the introduction of left-wing policies. So far, however, they have been unable to deter the government from its preferred course, as, when forced to choose, the PSD and PP will side with the government as a means of winning concessions of their own. One possible policy area in which the PCP and BE may be more successful is their intention to reintroduce a bill proposing the decriminalisation of abortion, a plan that could exploit the deep divisions within the PS on this issue, first exposed during the previous attempt to change the law in 1998.

With Jorge Sampaio (PS) retaining the Presidency in 2001 (see below), a weak and divided opposition in parliament, and a stable economic outlook, confidence in Guterres’ ability to tackle Portugal’s structural problems remains high. However, there are signs that the Prime Minister has taken note of the warning that the 1999 election result delivered to his government, hence the introduction of a series of reforms to the justice, health, and tax systems which he hopes will persuade the doubters that he is not afraid to take tough decisions when necessary. Nevertheless, Portuguese electors have shown that they will not be taken for granted. Any signs that the government is becoming complacent could yet leave an opening for a future resurgent opposition and a newly confident left.

6. Presidential election 2001

“With the expected victory of Jorge Sampaio, we have reached the end of the most uninteresting election in the history of the Third Republic”, remarked one observer of the 2001 campaign for Portugal’s presidency (Raimundo, 2001). Paulo Portas, leader of the PP, echoed this view, claiming that “these elections are less important than the forthcoming local elections”.[11] And the electorate certainly appeared to agree, with almost half of the eligible voters (49.1%) staying at home (Table 2).

Candidate (Party)Votes%
Jorge Sampaio (PS)2 411 45355.8
Ferreira do Amaral (PSD)1 493 85834.5
António Abreu (PCP)221 9715.1
Fernando Rosas (BE)128 9273.0
Garcia Pereira (MRPP)68 5771.6
Turnout4 453 01150.9
Abstentions4 293 73549.1
Table 2: Portugal’s presidential election results, 14 January 2001

Political debate has since been dominated by the search for reasons—and scapegoats—for this plummeting turnout.[12] One commentator attributed the high abstention rate to the unwillingness of certain leading opposition politicians, particularly Cavaco Silva and Freitas de Amaral, to stand against Sampaio, of whom it was said: “no-one has anything against him, nor for him”.[13]

Whilst Sampaio’s ‘guaranteed’ victory gave other left-wing candidates the courage to stand without fear of allowing a right-wing candidate in through the back door,[14] it was the habitual conflict between the two centre-right opposition parties, the PSD and the PP, which provided the contest with its only highlights both during the campaign and immediately following the result. With Cavaco and Freitas de Amaral both ruling themselves out of the contest, the PSD and the PP were left facing several dilemmas. Neither party wanted to give Sampaio a clear run, nor did they relish the thought of a humiliating defeat—the recent bitter rivalry between the two parties more or less ruled out the option of a joint candidate. The PSD acted first, and selected Ferreira do Amaral as their candidate; his declaration was then announced just three days before the PP’s conference, timed to cause maximum disruption amongst the populares. The PP responded by announcing Basilio Horta as their candidate. But many populares, including the party’s former leader, Manuel Monteiro, publicly endorsed Amaral. Horta was therefore forced, under enormous pressure from within his own party and from the PSD, to withdraw and to leave the field clear for the PSD candidate. Although the party’s leadership never formally endorsed Amaral, PP followers became an important constituency of PSD support in the election. Yet the PSD’s leader, Durão Barroso, refused to acknowledge this, and Amaral made no effort to involve the PP in his campaign. This decision reopened old rifts within the PSD, setting the current leadership against those perceiving a need for an electoral alliance between the two parties.[15]

Both Amaral and the PSD declared themselves satisfied with their 34.5%, claiming that their target had been 32.6%,[16] or, at an absolute minimum, to break the ‘psychological barrier of 30%’.[17] Paulo Portas, bitter at his perceived snub, interpreted the result rather differently, describing it as a disastrous defeat that reflected badly on the PSD at a time when the PS was at its weakest. This has exacerbated the conflicts between and within the two centre-right parties.[18]


Azevedo, Ana Paula (1999a), ‘A estreia’, Expresso Revista, No. 1407, 16 October.

Azevedo, Ana Paula (1999b), ‘Estabilidade económica e despolitização determinam abstenção’, Expresso, 16 October.

Cabral, Manuel Villaverde (2000), ‘O exercício de cidadania política em Portugal’, Análise Social XXXV (154/155), 85–113.

Corkill, D. (2000), ‘Portugal’s October 1999 election: not quite a foregone conclusion’, West European Politics 23 (3).

Freire, André (2000), ‘Participação e abstenção nas eleições legislativas portuguesas, 1975–1995’, Análise Social XXXV (154/155), 115–145.

Lima, J. António (1999), ‘Vitória eleitoral, derrota política’, Expresso Revista, No. 1407, 16 October.

Raimundo, Orland (2001), ‘Uma campanha triste’, Expresso, 13 January.


[1] This challenge occurred at the PSD’s Congress in February 2000 in which Barroso narrowly survived a leadership contest with Santana Lopes.

[2] ‘Uma crise anúnciada’, Expresso, 16 October 1999.

[3] ‘Resultado eleitoral congela “guerra da successão” no PS’, Expresso, 16 October 1999.

[4] “Quadra comparativo das legislativas” and “Matriz nacional de transferências de voto” (Lima, 1999).

[5] For example, Paquete de Oliveira in ‘Estabilidade economica e despolitização determinam abstenção’ (Azevedo, 1999b).

[6] This was anticipated in ‘Medo do absolutismo’, Expresso, 2 October 1999, although Bragança de Miranda believes there is little evidence to suggest that there was a conscious attempt to penalise the PS. See ‘Receio de um maioria absoluta’, Expresso, 16 October 1999.

[7] “Matriz national de transferência de vote”, ‘Vitória eleitoral…’ (Lima, 1999).

[8] António Lima, 1999.

[9] See, for example, Cabral (2000) and Freire (2000) See also articles in Público, Diário de Notícias and Expresso, 15–16 January 2001, and in Expresso, 16 October 1999.

[10] See, for example, Bragança de Miranda and Paquete de Oliveira in Azevedo (1999a).

[11] Pedro Correio, ‘Portas abre guerra à direita’, Diário de Notícias, 15 January 2001.

[12] The Portuguese newspapers devoted pages to analysis of the causes and possible consequences of the exceptionally high abstention rate. See Público, Diário de Notícias and Jornal de Notícias (all 15 January 2001), Expresso (20 January 2001).

[13] Miguel Sousa Tavares in ‘Falta de convicção’ by Maria Teresa Oliveira and Mário Ramires, Expresso, 13 January 2001.

[14] António Abreu (Portuguese Communist Party), Fernando Rosas (Left Bloc) and Garcia Pereira (People’s Revolutionary Movement Party) all stood for election.

[15] This latter faction was led by Pedro Santana Lopes, Barroso’s fiercest critic within the PSD.

[16] This being the PSD’s share of the vote in the 1999 legislative elections. See also Paula Costa Simões, ‘Ferreira do Amaral superou’, Diário de Notícias, 15 January 2001, and Ana Sá Lopes, ‘Alegria na derrota’, Público, 15 January 2001.

[17] Nuno Brederode Santa, Expresso, 20 January 2001.

[18] Portas’ statement was immediately denounced by the PSD’s leadership, who went on to state that they would not countenance any form of electoral alliance with the PP. Elements within the PP, particularly those grouped around Manuel Monteiro, were also quick to denounce Portas, even to the extent of challenging his leadership. Portas, however, found support from within the PSD—particularly from Santana Lopes. See Helena Pereira, ‘Direita de candeia às avessas’, Público, 16 January 2001.

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