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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

“Voting Paradox” in Portugal’s Snap Election Ahead

Updated: Feb 14

“Before 1974, the role of elections was to confirm the continuity of the ruling party, giving the international community the impression that there was a democracy.”

General Humberto Delgado campaign in the 1958 presidential election caused never-before-seen huge demonstrations in Porto, pictured above, and in Lisbon. Delgado lost in what most would agree was an electoral farce. The "fearless general" was expelled from the military, forced into exile and, in 1965, shot dead by PIDE, or the regime’s secret police, in Spain near the Portuguese border. In 2016, the Portuguese government renamed the Lisbon airport in honor of the aviation pioneer and campaigner against the Salazar dictatorship.


In the first election after the Carnation Revolution nearly 50 years ago, Portugal achieved a voter turnout of 91.5 percent, which was among the highest in Europe since 1945.

“Before 1974, the role of elections was to confirm the continuity of the ruling party, giving the international community the impression that there was a democracy,” according to Voter Turnout in Portugal: A Geographical Perspective (August 2019), the master’s degree dissertation of Liliana Alexandra Silvério Raposo Guerreiro da Cámara Manoel, NOVA Information Management School, Instituto Superior de Estatistica e Gestão de Informação, Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

“After forty-one years, the April Revolution, in 1974, enabled citizens to elect the deputies who would write down the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic. . . . One year passed, the Constituent Assembly finished its work, with approval of the Constitution, and the first legislative election took place.”

Portugal faces an unexpected election on March 10, 2024.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa called the election two days following the resignation of Prime Minister António Costa on November 7.

The prime minister took this action after authorities searched his official residence and the country’s attorney general confirmed that he was being investigated under a probe of corruption in his government linked to lithium mining proposals in the north in Trás-os-Montes in a U.N.-recognized agricultural heritage system as well as plans for a green hydrogen plant and data center in Sines in the south, reported Expresso (November 9).

In a televised speech to the country, António Costa said that the position of head of Government is not compatible with any suspicion about his integrity, but that he leaves the office with a clear conscience.

The March 2024 election is a legislative, or parliamentary, one.

Voter turnout is the total number of eligible voters who participate in an election. It is strongly related to electoral absenteeism. – the difference between the number of eligible voters and the number of participants.

According to the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, every citizen older than 18 is eligible to vote, except in the cases identified by general law. Voter registration is an automatic process since 2008 and, although voting is a civic duty, it is not mandatory, according to Liliana Alexandra Silvério Raposo Guerreiro da Cámara Manoel in Voter Turnout in Portugal.

The level of voters in Portugal has declined since the first election after the fall of the Estado Novo. Yet, turnout has dropped in most democracies in the past decades, Portugal being no exception.


Voter turnout in Portugal


In the Portuguese legislative election of 1975, voter turnout was 91.5 percent; in 1976, it was 83.3 percent, and in 2022, also a snap election, it was 51.4 percent, according to Pordata.

Voter decline in new democracies occurs in countries where the democratization process is driven by the opposition. The founding elections are highly mobilizing and, after that, turnout tends to decrease progressively until it reaches the standard level, according to Liliana Alexandra Silvério Raposo Guerreiro da Cámara Manoel in Voter Turnout in Portugal.

The act of voting is directly related to the concept of democracy, and it provides the opportunity of political equality among citizens (Freire & Magalhães, 2002). Voting strongly influences society, since political power is assigned through it. Levels of turnout can provide information about the state of democracy.

The Portuguese give high importance to the duty of voting (Barros, 2017) based on data from a survey, according to Understanding voting behavior in the Portuguese general elections from 2002 to 2019 (2021), Laura dos Reis Gonçalves’ master’s degree dissertation, University of Porto, Faculty of Economics. The researcher found that the sense of civic responsibility increased the probability of Portuguese voters’ turnout rather than the will to affect the electoral results.

Pedro Magalhães, currently, at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon and one of the authors of O Essencial da Política Portuguesa (The Essence of Portuguese Politics): Oxford Handbook of Portuguese Politics (2023), writes in Análise Social, vol. XLIII (2008):

The answer to the question of why, in a given election, some individuals vote while others do not, is reduced to a simple explanation: everything results from his, her or their “civic orientations”, especially the interest in policy. “Voting is the civic duty par excellence – civic in its demands and civic in its rewards” (Verba et al., 1995).


In the voting-age population in recent elections, out of 50 countries, Portugal ranked 28; the United States 31; the United KIngdom, 33, and The Netherlands, 14.


Yet, political scientists are not in agreement about how voting responsibility is inculcated in people. They disagree about the factors, or the weight of the factors, influencing voter turnout.

“Voting is not well understood by political scholars, despite its relevance (Aldrich 1993),” writes Liliana Alexandra Silvério Raposo Guerreiro da Cámara Manoel in Voter Turnout in Portugal. “This author states that turnout is affected not only by election specific variables, but also by attitudinal and demographic variables, therefore it is difficult to explain who votes in an absolute way.”

Voter Turnout in Portugal cites the influence of various sociodemographic variables. Some of the factors affect turnout differently in different countries (percentage of families with children younger than 15 and percentage of owner-occupied houses). Other variables affect countries similarly (percentage of graduates, percentage of families and the voter’s proximity to cities: Lisbon or Oporto).

“The socioeconomic characteristics of a society have no significant influence on turnout,” according to Richard Rose in Voter Turnout in the European Union Member Countries: The Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (2003), International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2004). “After taking political influences into account, the material living standard of a country has no significant effect. Likewise, the amount of money the government raises in taxes and spends on public policies has no significant influence.

“Additional statistical analyses show that the urban/rural division of the labor force did not affect whether people voted, nor did the percentage of foreign migrants. Although education encourages individuals to vote, countries with a higher proportion of citizens with a better education do not show a higher level of turnout.”

Social Networks

According to Pedro Magalhães in Análise Social, in Portugal, social networks, such as voluntary associations, community groups, professional organizations, trade unions and religious practice, have considerable impact. Empirical studies, however, have shown frustrating results in all but the latter two (Norris, 2002; Franklin, 2004).

“Using the data gathered in two survey questionnaires after the parliamentary elections of 2005 and the presidential elections of 2006, this article suggests that . . . social networks have a huge influence on the decision to vote.”

Considering social networks is a “novelty” now in Political Science, writes Magalhães (2008). Yet, it constituted the point of departure of the first effort at data analysis through questionnaire surveys conducted by Columbia University, in New York, in the 1940s and 1950s under Paul Lazarsfeld and Bernard Berelson (Lazarsfeld et al., 1944; Berelson et al., 1954).

“However, a look at the classic bibliography on electoral bibliography on electoral participation written after the seminal works of Lazarfeld and Berelson reveals that the conception of the voter that ended up prevailing in Political Science has been a predominantly atomistic conception, which sees the voter as an actor isolated in the face of a range of parties or candidates.”

This individualistic conception of the voter was inspired by rational choice theory, which originated in the 18th century and can be traced to political economist Adam Smith. The theory says that an individual will perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether an option, in this case voting, is right for them.

Political scientists have even introduced a “consumption benefit” that derives individual satisfaction in fulfilling a civic duty (Riker and Ordeshook, 1968).

“However, even when they avoid introducing these types of benefits into the equation, most of the remaining solutions to the ‘voting paradox’ provided by positive political theory continue to conceive of each voter as considering the individual costs and benefits of voting in isolation, with the remaining voters appearing only as part of a ‘generalized other’ . . . ” (Ledyard, 1981; Palfrey and Rosenthal, 1983).

The acquisition of skills for voter participation is not done only though primary socialization, schooling or formal involvement in organizations. The informal interaction with others can fulfill this function, writes Magalhães.

“If voters are frequently involved in political discussions with individuals who make up their social networks, they themselves can become sources of useful ‘social resources’ for participation (McClurg, 2003), exposing the individuals to political stimuli and messages, providing them with information about the topics being debated in an electoral campaign, about which candidate or party to support and why, or about the means available to influence the outcome of an election.

“It is not surprising, therefore, that several empirical studies have concluded that the frequency with which voters discuss politics within their social interaction networks is, in itself, explanatory of electoral participation” (Leighley, 1990; McClurg 2003 and 2006).

These microsocial contexts also provide information.

“Individuals with whom we interact may influence our behavior because their own behaviors and attitudes provide us with information about reality that helps us make choices (Sherif, 1936; Deutsch and Gerard, 1955). Information from this type of interaction produces greater effects than that received from more impersonal and anonymous sources, such as the media, the organizations to which we belong or even political parties themselves,” writes Magalhães.

With regard to electoral abstention in Portugal, the effects of “resources” – education or income -- on electoral participation in legislative or presidential elections appear to be modest or even nonexistent, especially from the moment that attitudinal variables, such as interest in politics, party identification or trust in political parties are taken into account, according to Magalhães.

Trust is also a factor.

In Understanding voting behavior in the Portuguese general elections from 2002 to 2019, Laura dos Reis Gonçalves writes:

“It was concluded that trust in parliament positively impacts turnout and satisfaction in democracy. Despite this, satisfaction with democracy is not enough to explain turnout. Individuals who are satisfied with democracy tend not to vote if they do not trust the electoral system (Birch, 2010).” The perception of fairness in the elections is based on data from elections in 31 countries between 1996 and 2002, including established and new democracies.

Economic factors also can affect turnout negatively or positively, according to Laura dos Reis Gonçalves:

“The unemployment rate can have both a withdrawal and motivation effect depending on its value (Martins and Veiga, 2013). It was demonstrated that if the unemployment rate is higher than 7.5 percent, it has a motivational effect, while it if is below 7.5 percent, the opposite happens.”

“A Story of Social Conflict"

It was not so long ago that suffrage was severely restricted to the few who held power.

Rafael López Pintor writes in Stages in the Electoral History of Western Europe, Voter Turnout in Western Europe Since 1945, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2004):

The quest for universal suffrage is “a story of social conflict”.

Beginning in the 19th century, “newly emerging social classes” held up the banner of universal suffrage.

Suffrage was not universal. To begin with, half the population—women -- did not have the right to vote. And so-called universal male suffrage was far short of universal, writes Rafael López Pintor:

“In Spain, where ‘universal male suffrage’ was first established by the Cadiz Constitution of 1812, this was, in actuality, a right for the bourgeoisie and was only extended to the wider propertied classes in 1837. The wider suffrage after 1837 was called the censitary vote, which could only be exercised by citizens who paid taxes above a certain amount (censo).

“Only 3.5 percent of the population could vote under this system, which was a relatively high proportion within the European context at the time: it was similar to the percentage in Great Britain and The Netherlands, and much higher than that of Belgium, where 1 percent of the population were actually able to vote, or France under Louis Philippe, where the figure was 0.67 percent.”

In general, it can be said that barriers to enfranchisement based on property were lowered in European countries during the late 19th century, age barriers had come down by the early 20th century, and education and gender barriers only disappeared, finally, by the middle of the 20th century or even later, writes López Pintor.


“I would like to thank the board and the assembly for their sympathy, and I will send word to our suffragette sisters abroad, who congratulated me so much that the Portuguese men are with us."


Portugal’s Electoral Code

In Portugal, in 1911, in the first election after the republican revolution, Carolina Beatriz Ângelo became the first woman to cast her vote. She fulfilled the Electoral Code’s requirements, including being head of household, as she was a widow raising her daughter, and she could read and write, as the first woman surgeon in the country.

The national and international press reported the event at a time when women’s suffrage in Europe was enshrined only in Finland, according to the Assembleia República website.

It was a victory for the suffragettes but a short-lived one. Most of the politicians whom Beatriz Ângelo supported for office disappointed her. According to Assembleia República:

“In the debates of the National Constituent Assembly, elected on May 28, 1911, there were few mentions of women’s suffrage.”

In 1913, a new Electoral Code clarified that voters had to be male. This step backwards lasted many years.

In 1931, women obtained the right to vote but not on equal terms with men. Secondary education was required for women, while men only needed to be able to read and write.

The electoral law of 1946 extended the right to vote to women heads of families and married women who, knowing how to read and write, had their own property and paid at least 200 escudos of property taxes. It allowed men the right to vote who, being illiterate, paid at least 100 escudos in taxes to the State.

Portugal’s literacy rate was officially 50 percent in 1946 but was probably much lower since those who could barely sign their names were counted as literate, reported Time magazine (July 22, 1946).

The 1968 law recognized women’s electoral rights, although the literacy requirement discounted many women as the literacy rate was much lower for women, according to Assembleia República. Also, only male heads of families could vote in elections for parish councils.

In 1974, after the overthrow of the stranglehold of the Estado Novo, Portugal abolished restrictions on the right to vote based on gender and embraced universal suffrage.

One year later, Portugal achieved a voter turnout of 91.5 percent, which was among the highest in Europe since 1945.

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Nov 23, 2023

Cynthia ! What a fascinating electoral history Portugal has had! Thank you for highlighting it.

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