Political Representation in Portugal Before and After the Great Recession: Legitimation and Ideological Linkages Between Voters and Their Representatives


Empirical studies on political representation in Portugal have highlighted some of the pathologies affecting the quality of democracy (Pinto, Magalhaes and Sousa 2013; Freire, Lisi and Viegas 2015, 2016). We also know the economic crisis and consequent austerity measures changed the discourse and practice of political agents and the channels and intensity of political participation by individuals in Portugal and elsewhere (Freire 2016; Freire and Lisi 2016). Moreover, the crisis was a catalyst driving the long-term decline of citizen dissatisfaction with national political institutions (Muro and Vidal 2016).

Bearing upon political representation studies in Portugal and elsewhere (Bel- chior 2008, 2010, 2012; Belchior and Freire 2013; Freire and Belchior 2013; Freire, Lisi, Andreadis and Viegas 2014; Freire, Tsatsanis and Lima 2016; Teix- eira, Tsatsanis and Belchior 2014a and 2014b; Belchior. Tsatsanis and Teixeira 2015; Tsatsanis, Freire and Tsirbas 2014), the focus of this chapter is twofold: it presents the major characteristics of empirical surveys employed to study political representation in Portugal;1 and addresses three major sets of questions:

  • 1 To what extent has the profile of MPs changed over the last decade?
  • 2 Has the crisis fostered a decline in mass (specific and diffuse) support for the democracy and is the Great Recession causing a major decline in political trust for political actors and institutions?
  • 3 How and to what extent have the attitudes of MPs and their values in respect of the fundamental issue dimension of political competition in Portugal, i.e., the socio-economic or socio-economic left-right dimension, changed?
  • 4 Are there similar changes apparent within the electorate?2

These are the main questions addressed in this study, which relies both on existing works and on original and recently collected data (see Table 4.1).3

Type of survey



Survey mode

Response rate

Data quality

Studies on prospective MPs (candidates) based on Candidate Surveys

Candidate survey (not in the CCS network)

Tcixeira (2009)

2002 elections

Mail survey N = 300/1150 (26%)


(although low response rate)

Candidate survey 2009 (CCS PT)

Freire and Vieeas (2010a)

2009 elections (fieldwork 2009 10)

Mail survey N = 300/1150 (17.7% of the (some elected universe, 28.4% of the candidates, MPs: questionnaires sent) face-to-face)


(although low response rate)

Candidate survey 2011 (CCS PT)

Freire, Viegas and Lisi (2013);

Freire, Lisi and Viegas (2015 and 2016)



(fieldwork 2012-13)

Mail survey N = 257/1 150 (some elected (22.3% of the universe and candidates. MPs: 29.3% of the questionnaires face-to-face) sent)

(for some variables only 190 respondents)


(although low response rate)

Candidate survey 2015 (CCS PT)

Freire, Lisi and Tsatsanis (2017b)



(fieldwork 2016-17)

Mail survey N = 306/1 150 (all elected candidates, (26.6% of the universe and MPs: face-to-face) 45.13% of sampling frame) (i.e. the listing of the accessible candidates from which it was possible to contact, personally (MPs) or by letter (non-elected candidates with registered address on the CNE))


(although low response rate)

Portuguese Studies on MPs based on MP surveys

MPs' survey, 2007 (PhD research)

Belchior (2012)

Survey in 2007 (elections 2005; fieldwork 2007)


79 respondents/230 MPs: 34.3%

Reasonable (low response rate and small number of questions)

( Continued)

Table 4.1 (Cont.)

Type of survey



Survey mode

Response rate

Data quality

MPs’ survey. 2008 (PARENEL Network)

Ereire and Vieeas (2008b)

Survey in 2008 (elections 2005)



respondents/230 MPs: 61.7%


MPs' survey, 2009



Freire and Viegas (2010b)

Survey 2009-10 (elections 2009, fieldwork 2009-10)

Web-survey (email) (some face-to-face or email)


respondents/331 MPs (islands included):



(but low response rate)

MPs' survey, 2013 (PARENEL)

Freire, Viegas and Lisi (2013);

Freire. Lisi and Viegas (2015, 2016)

Survey in 2012-13 (elections 2011; fieldwork 2012-13)



respondents/230 MPs: 53.5%


(but low response rate)

MPs' survey, 2016 or 2017 (CCS)

Freire, Lisi and Tsatsanis (2017b)

Survey in 2016-17 (elections 2015; fieldwork 2016-17)



respondents/230 MPs: 70.4%


(good response rate)

Sources: authors’ own elaboration based upon the sources referred to in the cells and cited in the references.

The following section contains a review of studies of political representation in Portugal. It is followed with an examination of the evolution of descriptive representation between 2005 and 2015. then a study of voter perceptions of political trust and legitimacy. The chapter then analyses how voter- MP congruence on the fundamental issue dimension of political competition, i.e. the economic left-right dimension (...) evolved before and after the crisis (2008 and 2012-13/2016-17, respectively). This will enable the identification of any significant changes in parliamentary descriptive representation, the legitimacy of the political system and ideological linkage functions between voters and their representatives after the Great Recession. The chapter ends with a summary of the major findings.

The Study of Political Representation in Portugal Before and After the Crisis

Although some studies on the Portuguese parliament and MPs exist for some time now (based on MP biographies, representative recruitment patterns and legislator activities), there is a more recent branch of research on political representation studies since 2008 based on candidate surveys (MPs and candidates) and corresponding mass surveys with similar items (2008, 2012, 2016) (see Table 4.1). Those works are connected to international research networks.4

Similar questionnaires were fielded to MPs (and candidates) and voters, including questions on the crisis, regime support, political trust and issue dimensions of party competition and voter identification. While in Table 4.1 we present the elite studies only for the four data points (2008,2009,2012-13,2016-17) we also fielded mass surveys (2008 and 2012) (Freire and Viegas 2008a; Freire, Viegas and Lisi 2012) and the first and second waves of a mass survey panel fielded (2016-18) via the internet with a sample weighted to ensure representativeness (Freire, Lisi and Tsatsanis 2018, 2017a). The crises experienced, especially in bailed-out countries in Europe, can be viewed as a 'quasi-experiment' for testing the effects of‘earthquake crises’ on democratic political systems in general, and political representation in particular (Freire et al. 2014; Freire 2016; Freire and Lisi 2016).

In the Portuguese case, after the debt crisis (post-2009) and the troika bailout (2011-14) major changes occurred with the October 2015 national elections (Freire and Santana-Pereira 2016). Unlike the other Southern European countries where the debt crisis and the devastating social and economic effects of the austerity policies were followed, politically, by remarkable levels of volatility and party system fragmentation (due to the success of new parties entering the political systems), in Portugal volatility and the party system format hardly changed. However, the crisis was one of the reasons behind the end of the 40-year schism among the left-wing parties in Portugal,5 which until then had never been able to govern together. The general election of 4 October 2015 eventually resulted in the appointment of a minority PS (Socialist Party) government with support from the PCP (Portuguese Communist Party), the BE (Left Bloc) and the PCP’s ally, the PEV (Greens). This government and the political alliance produced both left-wing policies and maintained compliance w'ith EU (European Union) rules. Moreover, the government performed w'ell both economically and politically, and was evaluated positively by the majority of left-wing and non-partisan voters (Freire and Santana-Pereira 2016). As a result of this political change w'e expect some inversion (2016-17) in the (declining) trends in political legitimacy and the (declining) levels of voter-MP policy preferences congruence during the period from 2008 to 2012/13.

The Evolution of Descriptive Representation Before and After the Crisis

The literature on the evolution of party organisations suggests a general decline in their representative capacity. Parties have faced increasing difficulties recruiting members and mobilising young voters, with an increasing bias over time (Mair 2013; Ignazi 2017). Previous studies found that Portuguese MPs traditionally display an "elitist profile’ (they have above-average levels of education, with high socio-economic status (SES) and mostly have a partisan career) (Freire 2001). Moreover, the proportion of younger MPs (under the age of 35) has declined over time and representatives present low' levels of social capital (membership in civic associations) compared to their peers in other Western democracies.

Drawing on the biographies of MPs between 2005 and 2015, this section aims to examine the evolution of their background and socio-demographic profile. In terms of gender, there are no significant differences over time (Table 4.2). The percentage of women remains low' (approximately 30 per cent), although a higher proportion of female representatives was elected in the 2015 legislative elections than before (Portugal introduced 30 per cent gender quotas in 2006). Their education level confirms previous findings, with a clear predominance of MPs with a very high level of education (often a Master’s or a doctorate). The percentage of younger MPs is below 20 per cent, a significant drop at the 2015 elections. This suggests the mobilisation during the Memorandum of Understanding period did not improve the

Table 4.2 Evolution of the profile of MPs in Portugal, 2005-15 (%)





Gender (male)





Age (18-35)





Education (undergraduate)





Social capital





Interest groups





Political capital





Political experience





Sources: MP biographies collected in parliament and processed by the project team (Freire, Viegas and Sciceira 2009; Freire, Lisi and Vicgas 2011; Freire, Lisi and Tsatsanis 2017b).

inclusion and representation of young people. The proportion of MPs who are members of civic associations is rather low and has declined between 2005 and 2011; nevertheless, the proportion increased significantly from 14.3 per cent to 31.4 per cent in 2015. Finally, there has also been a gradual decline in membership in professional organizations.

There are important differences across parties that are worthy of examination. The proportion of women has significantly increased in both the CDS-PP (Popular Party) and PCP On the other hand, the former has experienced a remarkable decline in the number of young MPs (0 per cent aged 18-35 in the 2015 elections). The main change affecting all parties concerns social capital. With the partial exception of the BE - which has always had stronger links with civil society/new social movements - in post-crisis elections the remaining parties have registered a considerable increase in the number of MPs belonging to a civic organisation. This trend has been accompanied by a slight decline in interest group membership (trade unions, business and professional organisations). Another general trend is that partisan careers have become more important as a criteria for political recruitment. The crisis seems to have had no effect on the openness of new trajectories for citizens with no partisan background or experience.

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