Portugal has suffered a political earthquake that has shattered the serenity of a mediocre political class. The right-populist Chega party quadrupled its seats and won 18 percent of the vote in Sunday’s general election; a stable government is now impossible without accommodating it and the grievances of the forgotten sectors of society that helped fuel its rapid rise.

It is an awkward time for Portugal to be facing instability. Fifty years ago, on April 25, 1974, junior officers overthrew a sclerotic civilian dictatorship. Very quickly the revolution turned into a power struggle between left-wing radicals intent on establishing another authoritarian system and democrats of various hues. The moderates won, but not before the economy was wrecked and Portugal’s African territories were abandoned, leading to much bloodshed.

Big celebrations are in preparation that will dwell on the magical first few months in 1974, when nearly everyone in the country seemed to proclaim that they were some kind of socialist, hoping to construct a new country based on the rights of workers, civic dignity, and independence for the colonized lands (where nearly 2 million white or mixed-race Portuguese resided).

The fact that the revolution turned sour will be overlooked. Widely shared progressive aspirations failed to produce any effective program of economic development. Fifty years on, not too much has changed. Eight years of rule by the Socialist Party, or PS, have been characterized by nepotism, outright corruption, and neglect of governing duties. Nevertheless, much energy is being put into asserting the view, through state-subsidized media outlets and cultural institutions, that Portugal remains on the right side of history, having written a glorious page in Europe’s anti-fascist struggle.

What has taken the left by surprise has been the rise in popularity of conservative sentiment, especially among young Portuguese. The politician with by far the most followers on social media is André Ventura, a swashbuckling sports commentator and law professor who founded the Chega (“Enough”) party in 2018 and has taken it to third place in the polls. Ventura has brushed off accusations that he is nostalgic for the old autocracy. His supporters argue that it is the Socialists who increasingly resemble the National Union, the political machine set up by António Salazar when he embarked upon a marathon stay in power in 1930.

Until a few months ago, the PS acted as if it would be in charge of Portugal for a long time to come. In January 2022, an aging electorate gave an absolute majority to its candidate, António Costa, a smooth and avuncular lawyer. The power base of the PS, the over-55s, had been shaken by the Covid pandemic. The familiar option seemed the safest bet. But Costa’s luster faded as he spent inordinate amounts of  time distributing favors to party insiders, globe trotting, and preparing his candidacy for a top job in the bureaucracy of the European Union.

Meanwhile, Portugal’s economy languished. With little industry left, the country is increasingly reliant on tourism and EU funding. A sclerotic bureaucracy, eating up much of the nation’s wealth, remains unreformed. Infrastructure is in a mess as shown by the huge sums wasted in re-nationalizing the state airline and then announcing that it was being privatized again.

Investigations into conflicts of interest led to 12 members of the government hastily resigning. On Nov. 7, 2023, Costa became the 13th member of his government to leave. Prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Vítor Escária, Costa’s chief of staff and confidant. They carried out a total of 43 raids on government buildings and homes, including the prime-ministerial residence, where more than €75,000 ($82,000) were discovered in wine boxes and bookshelves belonging to Escária.

Never overly concerned about the reliability of the Portuguese state’s accounting methods, the European Union awarded the Costa government €50 billion from its Resilience Fund, which is intended to revive flagging European economies in the wake of the pandemic. Predictably, the Socialists announced that the public administration would get the lion’s share. More public functionaries, rather than competitive companies, seem to be in the cards. It is a recipe for ensuring that Portugal falls behind a growing number of Eastern European countries in terms of wealth. Even Romania, which was widely seen as a failed state in 1989 when its 45 years of Communist rule came to a violent end, has just overtaken Portugal in the size of its economy.

“Ventura’s approach is more Keynesian than Friedmanite.”

The Chega party has steered a prudent course away from liberal economics in its bid to steal a march on its established rivals. Ventura’s approach is more Keynesian than Friedmanite. His principal support comes from young and early-middle-aged males from Lisbon and the south, ironically the principal strongholds of the revolution in its most radical phase. 

For years, opinion surveys have shown the Portuguese to be more socially conservative than most other nations in Western Europe, and certainly more so than their Spanish neighbors. There are higher levels of skepticism about state efforts to adapt society to global liberal norms. Unhappiness about a proposed new law permitting euthanasia partially explained why the president recently vetoed the measure. Chega articulates the view that Portugal’s prevailing, relatively unwoke model of race relations is broadly sound. To apply divisive North American norms is asking for trouble. Ventura’s party accordingly opposes large-scale immigration and reparations to former colonized countries.

Chega argues that cultural policies should show respect toward Portugal’s role in Christianizing different regions of the world, not just reflect on the downsides of imperialism. He slams the mainstream parties for importing bland cultural norms from the rest of Europe and the United States at the expense of Portugal’s own distinctive cultural heritage. 

At least for now, many of the dissatisfied in society—above all, the young—place their trust in Chega, because it is seen as an antidote to an untouchable political class. That might prove to be wrong unless Ventura is able to bring able people, rather than malcontents, with him into the next parliament. 

As the electoral results showed, the initiative lies with the populist right. Ventura’s message that the political class is divorced from the Portuguese people is cutting through. Many automatically warm to his observation that the rules apply, or cease to apply, depending on what suits those in charge. 

When voting was completed on the evening of March 10, it was soon clear that Chega had met its ambition to end the lengthy domination of two lackluster parties dominated by careerists. The leftist parties lack the minimum number of seats needed to rule. The centrist Democratic Alliance is a few percentage points ahead of the Socialists. But it can only hope to govern with the active backing of Chega. If it spurns the overtures of Ventura and opts instead to form a grand coalition with the left, the alienation felt by large swaths of the population is likely to increase immeasurably. It will be a test of Ventura’s guile to see if he can press his advantage and obtain a stake in government in the volatile period that lies ahead for Portugal.

Thomas Gallagher is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Bradford and the author of Europe’s Leadership Famine (1950-2022): Portraits of Defiance and Decay.


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