Portugal’s far right vaccine stops working in the Algarve

Portimão: “The government thinks only about tourists,” said the 55-year-old health care worker, her frustration slicing through the calm spring afternoon as a light breeze blew over the cobblestone promenade lining the city’s sun-kissed harbor.

Since moving to the city deep inside the Algarve six years ago, Matos complained that everything from rent to staples like coffee has doubled in price in Portugal’s southern tourism heartland.

“I live here all year round and … [it’s] intolerable because my salary is low but prices are rising a lot,” she said, adding the government must also “control” rising immigration in the area.

Like almost one in three locals in the city, in the country’s recent national election Matos voted for Portugal’s anti-establishment far-right party, Chega — which means “enough” in Portuguese — for the first time.

This city of 60,000 residents has been loyal to the left since the 1974 revolution that overthrew Portugal’s dictatorship. Now, Portimão leads the country’s sudden swing to the far right. Chega’s messages for locals are about rising prices, perceptions of increased migration, and a longstanding feeling that the state cares little for the area.

That’s emblematic of a broader shift across Europe, with far-right parties leading the polls from France to Austria, and the hard right vying for third place in this summer’s EU election.

But that change is more jarring in Portugal, a country where the memory of the repressive Estado Novo regime was long considered a vaccine against the far right. Its voters rejected ultranationalist parties long after the hard right gained representation elsewhere in Europe. However, since Chega first entered the country’s parliament in 2019, extremism has been on the rise.

So far, mainstream parties have refused to cooperate with Chega — with the recently elected center-right government ruling out a coalition. But, as elsewhere in Europe, continuing to do so may become increasingly difficult if the party’s success continues.

In the Algarve, the EU feels far away. But June’s bloc-wide election will still be important. For locals, it’s a chance to send a strong message to Lisbon on issues like housing, which they say isn’t being heard. For mainstream parties, it offers an opportunity to stem Chega’s seemingly unstoppable ascent.

“They are European elections but we have to talk to the people [about] local problems,” said Pedro Ornelas, a local campaigner for the Socialist Party. Ultimately, he added, the election will be more about “restoring confidence in all of the [mainstream] parties” than anything else.

“In Portugal … voters are much more prone to ideas from the left than from the right,” said Luís Serra Coelho, an economics professor at the University of Algarve. Beyond a historical distaste for far-right politics, that’s also because more than half of voters rely on the state for benefits, pensions or employment, he added.

In fact, during the last EU election in 2019, 14 of Portugal’s 21 European Parliament seats went to center-left or leftwing MEPs — the largest share of any country and matched only by Malta and Cyprus.

Poor working conditions in the city’s once prolific fish canning industry — fed by the gaping Arade river nearby — prompted some of Portugal’s strongest workers’ movements in the early 1900s.

Since the country’s return to democracy, the city has only ever elected Socialist mayors. In the wider Algarve, 62 percent of voters cast their ballots for left-leaning parties back in Portugal’s 2019 election, compared to 57 percent of voters nationally; in the 2022 snap election, 54 percent leaned left, compared to 53 percent nationwide.

But in March, that all changed dramatically.

Led by charismatic sports commentator André Ventura, Chega charged to first place in the Algarve, becoming the party’s topmost region nationwide on the back of a campaign that leaned heavily on anti-immigration rhetoric, defense of traditional family values and accusations that the previous Socialist government was corrupt.

In Portimão, that success was particularly stark: the party more than doubled its vote share, snatching 31 percent of the vote.

Like elsewhere in Europe, that spectacular shift is partly down to economics and partly the politics of migration, according to Coelho, the economics professor.

Around a quarter of the region’s 400,000 residents are foreigners, he said, with a growing share of those being low-income migrants from South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh who take advantage of relaxed visa rules to get jobs as seasonal workers in the Algarve’s tourism sector.

Locals complain the new arrivals are disturbing life in the seaside resort.

“They don’t respect our rules,” insists Ana Lucia Caetano, 30, a hostel owner in Portimão, who claims shops run by migrants close far later than legal opening hours and says security has become more of a problem.

“We don’t feel very safe with these new people here, especially when it’s dark and we are alone in the street,” she said, sitting inside the sleek brunch restaurant attached to her hostel as pop music blares in the background, and “people are really angry with that.” But the realities for migrants also are tough.

Vijay Kumar, 25, a restaurant worker who arrived in Portimão from the Indian state of Haryana three years ago, says he’s faced racism from locals and found it hard to settle. He currently lives with two others in a two-bedroom flat to afford the €1,200 per month rent on minimum wage.

There’s a “big problem in housing” and finding “work is very difficult,” said Kumar, speaking from Portimão’s vast seaside strip littered with concrete hotel blocks, the faint bays of the summer season’s first British tourists echoing in the distance.

And that’s far from the worst-case scenario. In recent years, police have carried out sweeping raids across farms in the neighboring region of Alentejo suspected of using forced labor and bringing migrant workers via human trafficking.

Yet Portimão also faces a second, very different type of immigration challenge.

Lured by Portugal’s good weather and recently scrapped rules that allowed foreign retirees to pay little to no taxes, the Algarve hosts tens of thousands of wealthy expats mainly from the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.

And while locals like the fact they boost investment in the area, that’s putting pressure on prices. As a result, house prices have risen fivefold in some places over the past decade, according to Coelho.

“It’s fair to say that there is a tension there,” said Michael Reeve, 55, a former British police worker who moved to Portugal 22 years ago and now runs its largest foreign residents’ association, Afpop.

“There is no coincidence there that whilst these people have been coming in … Portuguese wages have stayed the same,” he said from his snug basement office in central Portimão. “In my opinion, that’s one of the reasons that Chega got so much of a turnout.”