The Rise of Portugal’s Far Right Is a Wake-Up Call

After its hard-won return to democracy, Portugal was considered almost immune to the rise of the far right. In Sunday’s election, a party of “God, fatherland, and family” elected 12 MPs — the highest total since the end of the dictatorship.

Portuguese far-right Chega party leader André Ventura poses at the party headquarters in Lisbon on January 7, 2022. (Patricia de Melo Moreira / AFP via Getty Images)

Portugal’s election this Sunday was a tough defeat for the parties to the left of the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) — and also saw the far right consolidate its strength. Taking almost 42 percent of the vote, prime minister António Costa’s PS unexpectedly won an absolute majority in parliament, while the far-right Chega (Enough) advanced from one to twelve seats in the 230-member chamber, thus becoming the country’s third-largest political force.

In so doing, Chega overtook the parties of the Left, who both lost out heavily. The Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE) fell from nineteen to five seats, and the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português, PCP) from twelve to six. The Greens (Verdes), who since 1983 have always stood in a coalition with the PCP, exited parliament entirely. However, Livre, which aims to be a sort of pro-European green party, did elect one member of the 230-seat parliament, as did the animal rights-focused PAN, down from four.

The fragmentation on the Portuguese right was visible even in the previous contest in 2019. Back then, two new parties — Chega and the market-fundamentalist Liberal Initiative (Iniciativa Liberal) — entered parliament for the first time, at the expense of the PSD, the main center-right force. This dynamic was confirmed on Sunday: alongside gains for Chega, the Iniciativa Liberal rose from one to eight seats, while the PSD fell from seventy-seven to seventy-one. Its main ally, the conservative CDS-PP, founded after the 1974 revolution, fell out of parliament altogether.

Costa’s Victory

Whereas the PSD’s challenge faltered badly, thus deceiving some pre-election predictions, this was unquestionably a great night for Costa’s Socialists. With the party gaining some 19 seats — thus far taking it to a total of 117 out of 230 — the electoral map of mainland Portugal was wholly painted in PS pink. The PSD won only in the Autonomous Region of Madeira, an island off the west coast of Morocco best known for its wine and tourism. This was, in fact, the PS’s second-best result in the history of Portuguese democracy. Before this Sunday, it had won an absolute majority only in 2005, under the leadership of José Sócrates.

Back then, the PS enforced its will on the legislature under a logic of “I want, I can, and I will.” The 2022 result is above all remarkable for the mandate it gives Costa, already having been in power for six years at the head of a minority government. From 2015 to 2019, he had ruled through the so-called Geringonça ( “unwieldy contraption”), an arrangement based on a written agreement with the smaller BE, the PCP, and the Greens. Yet from 2019 up till the end of last year, Costa ruled without such a formalized pact, instead pursuing negotiations one law at a time, from budget to budget. In these years, more than 70 percent of the laws approved by Costa’s party could rely on the center-right PSD for support.

By late 2021, this situation had reached an impasse. Costa refused to accept most of the budget proposals made by his partners on the Left, aimed at strengthening the health service and undoing labor reforms imposed under the influence of the European troika. He was supported in this inflexible stance by the president, who threatened to dissolve parliament if the fiscal plan was not approved. With the opposition on both left and right opposing Costa’s budget, this is what ultimately happened.

When the snap poll was called, the parties to the PS’s left accused Costa of forcing an election amid an ongoing pandemic just to seek an absolute majority — a long-standing dream of the PS, hard to achieve in Portugal’s mostly proportional electoral system. However, the PS accused its old partners of irresponsibility, and even of helping the far right to build up strength before a general election originally slated for 2023.

During the first phase of the buildup to the vote, Costa made an appeal for an unequivocal mandate: a “stronger PS,” a “solid PS.” By the second week of the campaign, polls started indicating that the center-right PSD was narrowing the gap or could even win outright. This echoed the shock of the recent local election, in which the PSD won Lisbon City Council from the PS by a narrow 2,500-vote margin.

This helped create the perception — fed by the polls circulated in the mass media — of a strong polarization between the two main parties. The further-left electorate, believing that the PSD could return to power, mobilized for a tactical vote for the PS. Many of Costa’s extra votes seem to have come from the Left Bloc and the Communist-Green coalition. The stakes of this contest were also reflected by rising turnout: while in 2019 some 51.4 percent of voters abstained, this time around, the number fell to 42 percent even amid pandemic conditions.

After the austerity years of the early 2010s, the PS’s declining base forced it to embrace the parties to its left, but today it has returned with an absolute majority. As across Europe, Portugal’s party system has seen its transformations in recent years. Yet the two main parties (PS and PSD) still rally over 70 percent of the vote. The PS has shown resilience, even as many of its European sister parties head toward outright collapse.

Strengthened Far Right

The success for the far right had been a long time coming. Ever since its first breakthrough into parliament in 2019, there was suspicion that Chega would advance further in the next such contest — indeed, the media buzz around the party allowed for no other outcome. Sunday’s election confirmed this prognosis: Chega advanced from one to twelve MPs (eleven of them men), and from 1.3 percent (66,000 votes) to 7.15 percent (385,000 votes) — albeit still less than the 496,000 that party frontman André Ventura won in last January’s presidential election.

The party’s rise was especially significant, given the usual primacy of coalition talks in Portuguese politics. Pre-election scenarios included a renewed PS minority government, perhaps reliant on the left-wing parties; a more or less informal centrist bloc backed by both PS and the PSD, as happened with António Guterres’s government in 1995–2002; or even a right-wing variant of the Geringonça, in which Rui Rio’s PSD would form an administration reliant on the Liberal Initiative, the Christian-Democrats, and even Chega.

This prospect was key to driving the left-wing electorate toward the PS, and it was talked up by the far-right party itself, which even announced which ministries it wanted. Such a scenario is not unprecedented, given that such a pact already exists in the Azores. In October 2019, the PS came first in these islands’ regional election, but the PSD sealed a parliamentary agreement with Chega, which had elected two representatives, thus allowing it to govern with far-right support. The Azores are a small region — but this was a big step in the normalization of Chega, and a trial run for a similar solution at a national scale.

The PSD leader made it clear during the January 2022 campaign that he did not want a governmental coalition with Chega. Yet he was ambiguous about other, less formal kinds of parliamentary agreements. In reality, given the fragmentation of the Portuguese right, there was no chance that Rio would have been able to govern without some sort of Chega backing. At the same time, right-wing commentators argued that since the PS had made deals with the so-called far left, the PSD should equally be allowed to find allies on its own right flank, not least given that it needs Chega if it is ever going to be in government. The normalization of the far-right party thus reached a new level.

This fragmentation is also a sign of the radicalization of the Portuguese right. The Liberal Initiative has radicalized its economic agenda, adopting an openly neoliberal line that advocates mass privatizations of public services, even including the support system for victims of domestic violence.

Chega, meanwhile, combines this economic line with an emphatically racist and xenophobic discourse. Its campaign was mainly focused on the Roma community’s supposed dependency on public benefits — though when its leader was asked for numbers to prove this, he did not have them. While Portugal abolished the inhuman use of life sentencing back in 1884, Chega has brought this issue back into public debate.

Moreover, both parties have helped weaken the memory of the values of the revolution of April 1974. For instance, they advocate the abandonment of the national minimum wage and the privatization of the national health service — that is, to undo two major achievements of the revolution. Chega proposes a new regime instead of today’s democracy, recovering slogans from the Estado Novo era like “God, fatherland, and family.”

For some years, commentators and political scientists considered Portugal an exception, even as the far right gained electoral and governmental space elsewhere in Europe. It was argued that the memory of almost half a century of fascist dictatorship and the values of the Carnation Revolution would protect it from a parliamentary far right. Moreover, such factions as did exist were marginal and fragmented, politically inept, and associated with violence and organized crime. That was until Chega arrived, replicating the populism and social media strategy of its Spanish counterpart Vox.

The failure of the PSD’s centrist strategy, now reflected in leader Rio’s resignation, suggests that this center-right force may itself radicalize in order to avoid further losses. For now, it is expected to take a more low-key opposition to the PS while it elects a new leader. Chega will surely take advantage of this moment to affirm itself as the leader of the opposition, disputing that place with what it denounces as the “soft right.”

These dynamics already became visible on election night, with the PSD’s Rio unusually speaking before Chega’s Ventura. The PSD leader acknowledged the party’s defeat and said that it would not make any sense for him to keep his position if the PS did indeed achieve an absolute majority. Ventura addressed the country immediately afterward him, criticizing the center-right and promising, “António Costa, I will be coming for you now!”

Chega’s rise should alert any democrat and permanently bury the myth that Portugal is immune to the far right. Led by a man who has convictions for racial discrimination, since 2019 Chega has normalized hate speech and put hard-won rights and freedoms at stake. Its leaders did all that with just one seat in parliament. Now they have twelve seats, a weakened radical Left, and a PS majority to use as a source of further radicalization.