One commentator described the Portuguese Socialist Party's victory in last month's parliamentary election as a "new April 25", a reference to the country's 1974 revolution which sprang from an earlier mood in favour of change. Allowing for exaggeration, amid the euphoria of the victory celebrations, the election result does mark an important turning point in the country's 20-year democratic history just when, incidentally, the generation born since the end of the dictatorship first came on to the electoral register.
Ant"nio Guterres's Socialist Party gained a comfortable victory, just four seats short of an overall majority but large enough to enable it to complete a full four-year term. By reversing the poor showing for the left in recent Western European elections the Portuguese Socialists, excluded from power for more than a decade and suffering from the decline in electoral support and lack of direction afflicting other social democratic groups, could point the way for a revival in the fortunes of other centre-left parties. Are there any lessons that could be usefully absorbed by social democratic parties like Tony Blair's New Labour?
Guterres achieved a clear-cut victory, winning 112 out of the 230 parliamentary seats. The Socialists polled more than two and a half million votes and passed the psychological 40 per cent barrier for the first time, ending ten percentage points clear of their main rivals. Guterres, an engineer, joined the party in 1974 and became leader less than three years ago. He had no previous ministerial experience, but did unite the various factions within his party.
The first lesson is that a well-entrenched government led by experienced politicians making an appeal to the voters on the basis of continuity and stability can be defeated. The governing Social Democrats (PSD) had held office continuously either as a minority, coalition or majority administration, since 1979. Using state and European resources the PSD built a formidable organisational apparatus that, amid accusations of client list practices, became virtually indistinguishable from the state. Its claim to be the "natural party of government" was underlined by two resounding victories in 1987 and 1991 under An!bal Cavaco Silva - the only occasions since 1974 that a single party had managed to overcome that particular hurdle under the country's proportional representation rules.
The second lesson is that the economy, and consumer confidence in particular, is a key factor. The Cavaco Silva governments had taken full advantage of the economic boom triggered by the influx of European funds following the Iberian enlargement in 1986 to launch lavish expenditure programmes which began to modernise Portugal's antiquated infrastructure and industry. However, by 1993 the economy became mired in a recession from which the recovery has been painfully slow and uneven. Unemployment began to rise, fierce competition took its toll and the "feel good" factor, so crucial in previous elections, stubbornly refused to materialise. The public expressed their disillusion with a tired administration, sapped by scandals and corruption allegations, which, under a retiring prime minister, had wielded power arrogantly and widened the gap between the ruler and the ruled.
A third factor springs from the Socialist Party's own internal modernisation efforts. The party struggled for a long time to shake off its association with statism and the recession-hit years when in power during the 1970s and 1980s, and emerge from under the shadow cast by its founder and dominant personality, the current president, Mario Soares. Where predecessors had failed, Guterres succeeded in carving out for himself a distinctive image and authority encapsulated in the campaign slogan "Reason and Heart" that chimed well with the electorate and helped to bury the party's "leftist" image. The Socialists' transformation into a moderate, centrist party is encapsulated in the changed symbols used over the years, starting with the traditional clenched fist, replacing it with the red rose and eventually adopting a red heart.
Another significant element was that the Communist scare mongering no longer frightens the middle classes as it once did. Portugal's largely unreformed Communists (PCP-CDU) have steadily lost ground since the early 1980s and today they are the fourth largest party but with only a little more than 8 per cent of the votes. Social Democrat attempts to raise the spectre that the Socialists would only be able to form a viable government if they allied with the PCP left the voters unimpressed.
In addition, the PSD faced a near impossible task: to simultaneously disassociate itself from an unpopular government while promising continuity. When comparisons were made between the domineering and forceful Cavaco and his hand-picked successor, Fernando Noguiera, the former number two came off badly. His disgruntled rival for the party leadership, Durio Barroso, described him as "not charismatic, not a great mobiliser". Often on the defensive Nogueira spent much of his time trying to limit the damage caused by ill-timed and sometimes contradictory comments made by colleagues to a media that appeared more concerned with whether Cavaco would be a candidate in the January presidential election than with the PSD campaign. It raised the question of who was actually in charge and reinforced the perception that the party had lost touch with the public.
The election confirmed the trend towards the erosion of party loyalties that is evident in most Western democracies where a growing core of floating voters decide the outcome of elections. They are attracted less by policies or specific ideas or promises and more by perceptions of competence, party unity and leadership. Europe barely registered as an issue, but education probably did play a part in generating the mood for change and figured prominently in the promises made. Guterres declared that "education will be my government's passion and priority of priorities" and committed a future Socialist government to expanding nursery education, to establishing better relations with the teaching profession and to ensuring that students are better qualified for the labour market.
It is generally agreed that the major educational reforms which began after 1987 came some 15 to 20 years late, making the impact even more traumatic. An example is the access crisis facing higher education. Just under 50,000 applicants (60 per cent of the total) failed to obtain a place at one of the public universities and had to wait a further year or turn to the costly private university sector. Worse still, fewer than half the lucky ones who were accepted found places on the courses of their choice. The irony is that well-qualified students are denied access to higher education at a time when the economy is suffering a shortage of qualified workers.
Finally, although Guterres fell tantalisingly short of an outright majority the message from the electors came over loud and clear. Exceeding their own expectations, the Socialists won 44 per cent of the vote, beating the party's previous best by some distance and justifying Guterres's gradualist and moderate approach. The electorate clearly wanted stability and a new governing team, but not an alternative set of policies. The two leading parties broadly concur on how to run the economy and on relations with the European Union - what a Communist deputy likened to "a choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola". Given the tight constraints imposed on spending by the convergence criteria for monetary union there will be little room for manoeuvre during the next four years. The big challenge will be to combine compliance with the Maastricht criteria and to deliver the promised higher social spending.
David Corkill lectures in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Leeds.