LISBON â€” Portuguese Prime Minister AntÃ³nio Costa pulled off a stunning victory in Sundayâ€™s general election, winning a third consecutive term with his Socialist Party securing an absolute majority in parliament.
â€œThis is a special night for me,â€ Costa told cheering supporters. â€œThe Portuguese have confirmed that they want a Socialist Party government for the next four years â€¦ they want stability, certainty and security.â€
With almost all votes in, the Socialists (PS) had won 41.7 percent, ahead of the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 28 percent.
That gives the PS at least 117 seats in the 230-seat Assembleia da RepÃºblica.
Costa has headed minority administrations since 2015, propped up by two far-left parties. Now he is set to have a majority for the first time, reflecting voter support for the Socialistsâ€™ handling of the pandemic and its economic impact.
Joy at PS headquarters was tempered, however, by a big rise in support for the far right, which captured third place.
Socialist success disproved recent opinion polls that suggested the election was on a knife edge after a sudden surge in support for the PSD.
The PS won votes at the expense of its former far-left partners who dumped Costa in October by blocking the governmentâ€™s 2022 budget bill and precipitating the early election.
Voter anger over the far leftâ€™s role in triggering the political crisis was a key factor in the Left Blocâ€™s score falling to 4.5 percent, down from over 10 percent in 2019. The Portuguese Communist Partyâ€™s vote almost halved to 4.4 percent.
Both were leapfrogged by an upstart far-right party Chega, which took third place with over 7 percent. It will have at least 12 lawmakers, up from just one.
Despite the big lead, Costa pledged to work in dialogue with all other parties, apart from Chega, as he seeks to pull the country out of the pandemic and implement investments and reforms to underpin the recovery.
â€œAn absolute majority is not absolute power, itâ€™s not about governing alone,â€ he said.
On mainstream right, the results were a huge disappointment for PSD leader Rui Rio, who had narrowed the Socialistâ€™s opinion poll lead with a spirited campaign in the final run up to the vote.
â€œWe didnâ€™t come anywhere near our objectives,â€ Rio told supporters. â€œThe Socialist Party is the big winner tonight.â€
Rio suggested he would step down as party leader. â€œI donâ€™t see how I can be of any use, if the PS has an absolute majority for the next four years,â€ he acknowledged.
He blamed defeat on a fracturing on the right with the emergence of Chega and the new pro-business Liberal Initiative party, which increased its vote almost fourfold to almost 5 percent.
With a dozen lawmakers, the far-right is set to be a significant force in the Portuguese parliament for the first time since a 1974 revolution ended the Fascist-style dictatorship founded by AntÃ³nio Oliveira Salazar in the 1930s.
â€œThis is bittersweet,â€ Chega leader AndrÃ© Ventura told reporters. â€œIâ€™m happy with Chegaâ€™s growth, but â€¦ AntÃ³nio Costa will stay on as prime minister.â€
Although Chega was one of the dayâ€™s clear winners, the partyâ€™s score is well down on the almost 12 percent Ventura won in presidential elections a year ago.
The new parties on the right have squeezed the PSDâ€™s traditional ally, the conservative CDS-Peopleâ€™s Party. A major force in the last center-right government from 2011-2015, it looked certain to win no seats.
Costaâ€™s victory was welcomed by the center-left elsewhere in Europe. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchez was quick to tweet congratulations.
â€œPortugal has once again opted for a social-democratic project that combines growth and social justice,â€ he wrote. â€œTogether we will continue to promote a socialist response to the challenges we share, in our countries and in Europe.â€
Abstention was estimated at 42 percent, down almost 10 points from the last election in 2019 despite pandemic restrictions.