Minor political parties take part in television debates during electoral campaign in Portugal


For the first time since the establishment in 1974 of the democratic regime in Portugal, minor political parties without parliamentary seats will participate in the television debates in the lead up to the parliamentary elections on June 5th.

This decision was made by Portugal’s three main television channels, namely the public broadcasting company, RTP and the two private channels SIC and TVI, after two minor parties, the MEP (centre) and the PCTP/MRPP (extreme left), appealed to justice to demand equal treatment of all parties on television. The decision was also made after the Portuguese media regulator, Entidade Reguladora para a Comunicação Social (ERC), told broadcasters, in a previous meeting, that television companies could be fined if they did not respect the law.

Up until now, only the five main Portuguese parties – PS (socialist party), PSD (social-democratic party), CDU (communist coalition), CDS (centre party) and BE (left wing party), were invited to take part in the political debates in lead up to the parliamentary elections, despite complaints presented by minor parties to the ERC and the National Electoral Commission.

In a press release issued on May 5th, the directors of information of RTP, SIC and TVI explained that, “as part of the coverage of the pre-electoral campaign and the election campaign, the three television channels have agreed to hold a series of interviews and one debate with representatives of parties without parliamentary seats”.

The offer is not open to all minor parties, however. There are 17 political parties running for the parliamentary elections, but aside from the five main parties, only two parties without parliamentary seats will participate in the televised debates. The parties will be chosen from those that are running for the highest number of electoral districts.

The series of face to face debates between the five main parties started on May 6th and will end on May 20th.


On Wednesday night, May 18th, the representatives of seven small parties - Partido Popular Monárquico (royalist party), Movimento Esperança Portugal (humanist party), Movimento Partido da Terra (green party), Partido pelos Animais e pela Natureza (party for animals and nature), PCTP-MRPP and Partido Trabalhista Português (Portuguese labour party) - took part in a joint discussion on the public broadcaster RTP. The Labour party leader José Manuel Coelho briefly disrupted the debate when he raised a banner reading “You can not silence the people,”  forcing the moderator to call for a break in the programme.

After May 20th, the representatives of all 17 political parties will be interviewed by RTP 2, an offshoot of RTP which tends to have lower audience levels.

Although this development represents an unprecedented change, it is being strongly contested by the minor political parties that will not be invited for the debates with the major parties.

On the evening of May 6th, during the first face-to-face debate between the leaders of CDS-PP and PCP, around 20 supporters of the extreme left wing parties PCTP/MRPP (communist party for Portuguese workers) and PTP (Portuguese Labour party), forced their way into RTP’s building. They were protesting against unfair treatment of smaller political parties.

The police had to intervene and clashes with the protesters ensued, but no one was hurt. More than an hour later, RTP’s director of information Nuno Santos talked to the protesters, who consequently demobilised.

Supporters of small left wing parties clash with police as they try to force their way into RTP’s building

Demonstrations of support for the protests appeared on many social networks and blogging websites, conveying the message that everyone within a democracy has the same rights and must be treated equally.

The specificity of Portuguese political system

António Costa Pinto, senior fellow at Lisbon University’s Institute of Social Sciences, explains that the decision taken by the three television channels, “goes against the current with what happens in other European democracies”.

The Portuguese parliamentary system is based on the D’Hondt method, where parliamentary seats are allocated in party-list proportional representation. “That is why all the candidates must receive equal treatment from the media”, argues Costa Pinto.

“Since the founding fathers of the Portuguese democracy decided to grant a greater expression to the diversity of political parties in the governance of the country, it makes sense to broaden the political debate to the smaller parties”, he adds. “Democracy will gain from it”.

What does equal treatment mean?

The main problem however, according to Francisco Rui Cádima, professor of Communication Sciences at the New University of Lisbon’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is that despite the complaints presented at the ERC and the National Election Commission, television channels were never fined.

“The Portuguese Constitution defends freedom of speech and equal treatment, but the ERC and the National Elections Commission merely give recommendations. I think this is due to the limited level of experience in the exercise of democracy that still characterises Portuguese television channels and civil society”, Rui Cadima says.

“The main political parties have monopolised the discourse in prime-time communication”, he adds.

“Pluralism is the diversity of voices and not the diverse voices within the parties. That is why it is so important to hear the ideas and the proposals of all political parties. Only then will the voters be properly informed”.

From the professor’s point of view, broadcasters cannot argue that they respect party pluralism when debates or interviews with representatives of minor parties are granted overnight and/or on a television channel such as RTP 2 “that almost no one watches.”

Francisco Rui Cádima pleads for the acceptance of the idea that all political parties (not only the five main ones) must be heard by voters during electoral campaigns. Political debates and interviews must be broadcasted at the same time and on the same channel, without giving more prominence to some parties than to others. This is the only way democracy will flourish.