Far right surge in Portuguese elections

21 April 2024

By Dara O’Cogaidhin

Portugal’s inconclusive general election results on 10 March resulted in a narrow victory for the centre-right coalition Democratic Alliance (AD) over the centre-left Socialist Party (PS). For the first time in 40 years, the percentage vote share of the so-called ‘centrão’ reached a low of 60%. In the absence of a clear winner, the far-right Chega (‘Enough’) was the real beneficiary of the election as it quadrupled its seats from 12 seats in the 230-seat Parliament in 2022 to 48 seats today. It is now the third biggest party in Parliament and effectively holds the balance of power.

The AD leader Luis Montenegro said he would stick to his campaign pledge of not forming a governing coalition with Chega, even though their leader Andre Ventura said he is willing to drop some of his more controversial policies such as chemical castration for sex offenders and the introduction of life prison sentences if that enables inclusion in a possible governing alliance. The prospect of a grand coalition between the AD and PS has been ruled out, though the PS indicated they would allow a minority AD government to form by abstaining from key parliamentary votes to keep Chega at bay.

Chega makes significant gains

The result underscores a political tilt to the far-right across Europe. Portugal, which only returned to democracy after the Carnation Revolution 50 years ago, was considered immune to this rise of right-wing populism across the continent. Chega, which was formed five years ago, campaigned on an anti-establishment platform promising to sweep away corruption. Their campaign also featured anti-LGBT and anti-immigrant rhetoric, with Ventura expressing a melancholy for the dictatorship known as Estado Novo and its defence of traditional Catholic values. Ventura is a former trainee priest who made his name as a football pundit on TV.

Corruption is seen by many as endemic to the two mainstream parties in Western Europe’s poorest country. Chega, whose main campaign slogan was to ‘Clean up Portugal’, were able to capitalise on a high-profile corruption investigation into the handling of government appointed energy projects which led to the resignation of PS Prime Minister Antonio last year.

Despite a budget surplus and annual growth rates above 2%, the PS government presided over a worsening economic situation for workers. There is a housing crisis due to the high prices of rentals with Lisbon being one of the most expensive cities in Europe to rent. The average monthly salary, before taxes, is around 1,500 euros (£1290) which is barely enough to rent a one bedroom apartment in the capital. The PS government were also confronted with a wave of strike action last year over better pay and working conditions.

Setbacks for the left

Aside from the PS, the biggest losers on election night were the Left Bloc (BE) and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP). The BE maintained the 5 parliamentary seats they won in 2022, but could not capitalise on the working-class disillusionment in the PS and received their worst share of the vote in 20 years. The BE won 18 parliamentary seats in 2015 and, alongside the PCP who won 17 seats, supported a minority PS government in a pact that became known as geringonça (‘improvised solution’).

Propping up the PS government was a disaster for both the BE and PCP. Obsessed with government intrigues which absorbed their activist capacity, the BE and PCP both refused to take a lead and generalise the struggles when there was a wave of strike action in the autumn of 2021. They also continued their support for the government when they mobilised the military to break a national lorry drivers’ strike in 2019.

Providing a left cover for a pro-business PS government created the space for Chega to present itself as an ‘anti -systemic’ protest party. Rather than hold the PS responsible for the acute cost-of-living crisis, the BE leader Maria Mortágua instead criticised their absolute majority and called on the parties of the left (including the PS) to ‘negotiate a majority agreement for a left-wing government programme’ ahead of the March elections. Instead of presenting a socialist alternative, the BE was feeding illusions that a progressive left-wing government by the PS was possible.

The BE also have a new political competitor called Livre (‘Free’) which is a pro-EU party with green-left credentials. Their leader Rui Tavares split with the BE in 2014. They increased their representation in parliament from one seat in 2022 to four seats today. Unlike the BE and PCP, they were unburdened by the baggage of propping up a PS government and it benefitted the most from the collapse of their absolute majority. Livre also won their seats in the traditional bastions of the BE, including Lisbon and Setubal.

The PCP’s slow electoral decline continues with their number of seats reduced from six to four, owing in part to its ageing voter base, which is deeply rooted in the struggles against the dictatorship. Their 76 year old veteran leader, Jerónimo de Sousa, drew repeated criticism for refusing to condemn Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. The PCP still retains control of the CGTP, Portugal’s largest union confederation, which organised partial strikes last year to protest against austerity measures and soaring inflation, but failed to organise a general strike as the next step in a sustained plan of action against the PS government.

Unstable government: now build the resistance

Last year saw an escalation of class struggle against the PS government. However, the lack of a coordinated industrial offensive meant the PS government, with its absolute majority, could absorb the blows. Low wages and a high cost of living, worsened last year by surges in inflation and interest rates, mean that a minority AD government will be vulnerable from the outset. As well as having to negotiate with other parties to pass legislation on a case-by-case basis, a new parliamentary election is probable if AD fail to pass their 2025 budget.

The demonstrations for the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution should be the occasion to organise workers assemblies in every workplace to plan the struggle, unite the different sectors, and bring down the AD government. Drawing on their rich revolutionary traditions, workers and youth need to build a combative party, equipped with a socialist programme, to resist the AD’s neoliberal onslaught before they are able to complete the tasks left over from the 1974–75 revolution.

Tags:  • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter