Portugal’s Socialists lose absolute majority in Azores regional election

LISBON — Portugal’s governing Socialist Party came first in Sunday’s Azores regional election but lost its absolute majority in the islands’ parliament, a blow for Prime Minister António Costa in his first ballot-box test since the coronavirus pandemic.

The Socialists (PS) scored 39.1 percent, a surprise drop of over 7 points from four years ago and their worst performance in the region in 24 years. The main center-right opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) won 33.7 percent, up 3 points.

The far-right Chega party captured 5 percent of the vote to enter the regional parliament for the first time, just behind the conservative CDS-People’s Party on 5.5 percent.

With right and left finely balanced in the 57-seat assembly, the Socialists could lose control of the mid-Atlantic archipelago for the first time since 1996.

“The government in the archipelago is totally worn out, like the national government is totally worn out,” said PSD leader Rui Rio.

Monarchist, radical-left, animal rights and liberal parties also picked up seats.

Rio acknowledged it would be “difficult” to form a regional majority on the right bringing together five parties, and said it would be up to the local PSD leadership to decide whether to reach out to Chega.

Costa also had bad news in Lisbon. His erstwhile allies in the radical Left Bloc party announced they will vote with the right-wing opposition against the government’s budget bill in parliament next week.

His minority government could be thrown into crisis if the budget is rejected in Wednesday’s vote, but the bill could still squeeze through after the Portuguese Communist Party and the People, Animals and Nature (PAN) party said this weekend they will abstain.

Costa is now dependent on two lawmakers from the Communist-allied Green party and a pair of independents to secure the budget’s passage, which he says is essential for the post-pandemic recovery.

The Left Bloc allied with Costa during his first term from 2015-2019, but leader Catarina Martins rejected the budget as insufficient to support the National Health Service.

“We cannot accept a budget that fails to respond to the social emergency we’re living through,” she told reporters.

Unlike other national party leaders, Costa decided not to travel to the Azores to campaign, instead leading national efforts to tackle the pandemic and budget negotiations.

The PS was banking on the region’s 228,000 voters to approve the regional government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 and its economic impact on the nine-island archipelago.

Daily infection levels have been in single figures since March, even as they soared to over 3,000 this week on the Portuguese mainland.

However, Azores’ economy has been hit hard. It contracted 7.3 percent in the second quarter, due mainly to a tourism collapse that saw visitor numbers drop 98.3 percent.

Sunday’s election showed growing support for Chega, which elected its first lawmaker at a national level last October.

Party leader André Ventura, who campaigned vigorously in the islands, achieved his aim of winning more than one seat in the Azores with 5.1 percent of the vote. He is looking to do better nationwide in the presidential election scheduled for January, where opinion polls have him securing up to 11 percent.

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