How Portugal’s right won the election

Lisbon: In the year that marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Portuguese revolution, the populist far right is the big winner of the elections which took place on March 10. Chega, the party led by André Ventura and inspired by Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, and the president of Vox, Santiago Abascal (who was in Portugal to take part in the campaign), won over one million votes and established itself as the third force on the Portuguese political map.

On the day of the election, Portugal went back to the polls just two years after the elections that gave the Socialist Party (PS) an absolute majority through the support of the left-wing parties, the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). The corruption scandal that led to the resignation of the previous prime minister, António Costa, has yet to be investigated and explained, but the truth is that, after eight years of governance, which included the post-austerity era, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the inflation crisis and various smaller scandals within the government itself, the party’s image was worn out making it impossible for it endure yet another scandal, this time allegedly involving the prime minister himself. On November 7, 2023, the government fell and snap elections were called.

The task was difficult for the new PS secretary-general, Pedro Nuno Santos, a politician associated with the left wing of the party for many years, who was elected just two months before the elections. For its part, the center right, represented in these elections by the Democratic Alliance (AD) coalition, made up of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the People’s Party (CDS-PP), and the Monarchist People’s Party (PPM), had room to assert itself as an alternative to the PS.

However, the results show a narrow gap between the two parties: 28.9 percent for the AD with eighty MPs and 28 percent for the PS with seventy-eight MPs. In third place is Chega, with 18.1 percent of the vote and fifty elected MPs; followed by the right-wing liberal party, the Liberal Initiative (IL) with 4.9 percent of the vote and retaining its eight MPs, then the BE with 4.4 percent and retaining its five MPs, the PCP coalition with 3.2 percent of the vote and four MPs (losing two), the Livre party with 3.2 percent and four MPs, and the PAN with 1.9 percent of the vote and one MP.

These elections maintain the presence of the same parties that entered the Assembly in 2022. The big change is the clear majority of the Right: AD, IL, and Chega won more than 50 percent of the vote. In terms of mandates the right-wing parties won at least 135 mandates, well above the 116 needed to guarantee an absolute majority.

However, the leader of AD, Luís Montenegro, reiterated throughout the election campaign that he would not make an agreement to form a government with Chega. This will either result in a political crisis or in Montenegro breaking his preelection promises by entering into negotiations with the far right. Pedro Nuno Santos (PS) is also clear: he will not be part of any central bloc government with AD. It is difficult now to imagine a stable government in Portugal. The AD minority government will assume power on April 2, after which tough negotiations will begin after the summer and are likely to center on the state’s budget.

One of the most interesting facts about these elections is the low abstention rate (less than 34 percent), which meant a wider electoral universe and a greater dispersion of votes. For example, the BE maintained the same percentage of the vote compared to 2022, although it won around thirty-four thousand more votes.

Low abstention is part of the explanation for the growth of Chega, which was able, by combining a focus on corruption with a profoundly neoliberal economic program, to attract disillusioned voters. The anti-system discourse, which is currently totally dominated by the extreme right, has also led many young people to vote for this party. But AD’s and Montenegro’s position during the campaign — that they will never make a government agreement with Chega — has also made this party the depository of protest votes.

This is an important fact that may partly explain the far right’s rise. In 2022, the leader of the center-right PSD party had not made the same promise. This led to the normalization of tactical voting for the PS to ensure that Chega would not come to power, guaranteeing the center-left party an absolute majority and ensuring low result for the PSD.

Chega also won two of the four mandates elected by the emigration community. This is a new phenomena, given that a party outside of the center left and right had never been able to elect MPs outside of the country. The questions of migration have become a central topic in Portuguese political debate for the last decade — during the years of the memorandum of austerity imposed by the troika (the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission), the country experienced its biggest emigration wave, comparable only to the one that took place during the 1960s and ’70s due to poverty, fascism, and the colonial wars Portugal was engaged in.

At the same time, Portugal has witnessed an exponential surge in immigration, both from upper-middle-class migrants (many of the so-called digital nomads), as well as working class migration from Brazil and southeast Asian countries. The tension between the dynamics of emigration and immigration was opportunistically exploited by the far right, a fact which helps to explains the migrant vote.

The new PS secretary-general, although he has represented the most left-wing faction of his party for many years (he was, in fact, a central figure in the PS’s governance with the support of the BE and PCP), was elected just two months before the elections. This reality created a difficult dilemma: on the one hand, trying to maintain a more assertive and radical political language, and on the other, not losing the structure and support of the party he had just won. This dilemma created a confused campaign on the part of the PS, which also reveals the complex situation that the Portuguese left has had to negotiate.

Elections for the European Parliament will take place between June 6 and 9 amongst European Union member states. This poses a new challenge for the Left: given that EU-critical stances have been highly punished at the ballot box, it is likely that the Left will respond to the elections by adopting wobbly programmatic positions on questions concerning the EU. This is a particularly dangerous position for a country like Portugal to adopt. Any attempt to strengthen popular sovereignty or institute an industrial policy and planning regime is only possible through a confrontation with the bloc, a difficult but necessary task.

Moreover, in European elections, Portugal tends to witness high levels of abstention and so-called protest voting — a dynamic that might reinforce the far right this time around. Interestingly, Chega, in contrast to its sister organizations in Europe, does not have an EU critical position, showing that even for the Portugese far right, the European question in is very hard to navigate.

Since 2015, when both the BE and the PCP decided to support a PS government in parliament, the Portuguese left has found itself in a difficult position in which both parties have slowly been losing electoral influence. Things came to a head during the 2022 elections when both parties decided to stop supporting the PS government elected in 2019, forcing early elections at which the BE and PCP were punished by the electorate for two fundamentally different reasons. On the one hand, voters took issue with their support for a government which failed to live up to the expectations it created, and on the other hand, voters also objected to its role in undermining that same government and precipitating a political crisis.

The elections on March 10 have confirmed this trend, even though the Bloc secured more votes than it did in 2022. The Left remains trapped between asserting itself and compromising with the PS to prevent the growth of the far right. The campaign of the two parties demonstrates this same tension. Both the BE and the PCP managed to bring the issues of labor rights, the national health service, public education, and the brutal housing crisis in Portugal into the political debate, however the tactic of the campaigns was to affirm their total willingness to negotiate a government with the PS. The Livre party shares the same approach.

The Left must engage in a process of serious strategic reflection in order to reverse its own decline. This will involve strengthening grassroots organization to combat the fear, insecurity, and dissatisfaction that inflame the far right.

In the year in which we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, we need this strength and organization more than ever.