LISBON — Portugal’s Social Democratic Party (PSD) voted for more of the same Saturday as party president Rui Rio fended off a leadership challenge on a promise to keep the country’s leading opposition force on a centrist course.
“The PSD is not broken. It was time to show our differences, now it’s time to show unity,” he said in a victory speech. “The party has voted for stability.”
However, the narrow margin of victory hardly augurs well for Rio’s efforts to overcome divisions and revive the fortunes of the center-right party, which has been humbled by a succession of defeats since it was kicked out of power in 2015 by Socialist Prime Minister António Costa.
Having failed to win outright in a first-round vote last week, Rio scored 53 percent in a run-off vote among the PSD’s 40,000 paid-up members, defeating the party’s former parliamentary spokesman Luís Montenegro.
Montenegro led a rebellion demanding a more aggressive opposition to Socialist rule in the wake of the party’s worst result in over 30 years in October parliamentary elections that saw Costa re-elected.
Rio has now survived two defenestration attempts in less than two years since taking the party helm. Winning under the slogan “Portugal at the Center,” he promised a continuation of “constructive opposition” open to cooperation with Costa’s government.
He will hope now for a period of calm to prepare for the next electoral tests: a vote for the Azores regional government in October and nationwide municipal elections in 2021.
“The PSD won’t be successful if it keeps putting its leader through the grinder,” Rio told Antena 1 radio this week.
Montenegro appeared to respond positively to Rio’s unity appeal.
“We all have to contribute to ending a culture of disunity and overcome divisions,” he said in a speech conceding defeat. “We all have to collaborate to unite the PSD.”
However, differences within the party were underscored by a boycott of Saturday’s vote on the island region of Madeira — a PSD stronghold — as a protest against voting rules. Lawmakers from the island also defied Rio’s call to vote against the government’s budget bill this month.
Beside internal differences, the party faces a fracturing of the right-of-center vote.
The conservative CDS–People’s Party, which governed in coalition with the PSD from 2011-2015, lost all but five of its 18 seats in October’s election. It too is seeking a new leader and is likely to shift further to the right.
Two new parties, the free-market Liberal Initiative and the far-right Enough!, elected their first members to parliament in October and are pressing the PSD from the right.
Portugal’s left has also splintered, with three parties to the left of the Socialists now represented in parliament alongside an animal rights outfit called People-Animals-Nature which quadrupled its seat count in October.
However, despite the end of the Socialists’ formal alliance with the Portuguese Communist Party and Left Bloc which underpinned his first term, Costa has so far managed to rally parliamentary support for his minority administration. He secured backing this month in a crucial vote on his 2020 budget.
Rio, 62, a long-time mayor of second-city Porto, opposed the budget, but under his leadership the PSD has backed the Socialists in areas such as EU funding, labor law reform and defense.