Some Portuguese Still Haven’t Accepted the Revolution

Fifty years since Portugal’s democratic revolution, the far-right Chega party is on the rise. It’s exploiting disaffection with mainstream parties — but also nostalgia for the days when dictator António de Oliveira Salazar ruled a Portuguese empire.

André Ventura, leader of the Chega party, sings the Portuguese national anthem with the Portuguese flag on July 1, 2021 in Lisbon, Portugal. (Nuno Cruz / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In 1965, a statue of António de Oliveira Salazar was erected at the heart of Santa Comba Dão. This is a pleasant rural town in central Portugal — and the place where Europe’s longest-ruling twentieth-century dictator grew up. The statue depicted a stern figure seated with manspread legs upon a granite plinth, beyond the reach of his inferiors. His hands grasped the sides of a throne of stone.

Salazar’s persona united the holy trinity of Portugal’s fascist regime, the “Estado Novo” (“New State”). From 1932 to 1968, he ruled over an empire backed by the Catholic church and institutionalized repression.

When the statue was put up, Salazar was still alive — having been prime minister and de facto dictator for thirty-three years already. In that moment, Portugal was also fighting three colonial wars in Africa — in Angola, Guinea and Cape Verde, and Mozambique — despite being the poorest country in Western Europe. It could only fund its warfare thanks to its NATO membership — and Salazar’s ability to ideologically defend the struggle as a matter of preventing the spread of “Communism in Africa.”

Salazar had kept Portugal waving a neutral flag during World War II, playing cards with both the Allied and Axis forces. After the fall of Third Reich and Italian fascism, he would, along with Spain’s Francisco Franco, remain the last remaining despot in Western Europe. He not only refused to surrender his country’s colonies — after a 1951 constitutional rewrite called its “Oversea Provinces” — but also managed to sell his services to NATO, given the alliance’s reliance on Portugal’s mid-Atlantic Azores islands.

The Estado Novo was a far-right political project in which any sign of disagreement — whether regarding the country’s economic model, its colonial policy including forced labor, or the lack of most basic civil, political, and social rights — was, to quote Umberto Eco, “a sign of being different.” Yet today, upholding the memory of Salazar’s regime has become a winning political formula. It offers a twisted historical narrative spiced with nostalgia, at a time when far-right movements are gaining momentum across the West.

In the last five years, André Ventura’s Chega (“Enough”) party has emerged from a political wasteland of neofascist dreamers to enter the heart of Portugal’s institutions. Chega’s swift rise from 1 percent in 2019 to 18 percent today is an achievement based on luring former abstentionists to the voting booths — along with nostalgia and coded narratives referring to Salazar and his state.

Ricardo Noronha, a historian at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, told me that Chega has “tickled the collective Portuguese trauma and the buried sentiments” left behind by the Estado Novo. “I reckon that the other parties will move further to the right in an attempt to win back voters who opted for Chega in the last election, and do so by adapting to its political language and socioeconomic narratives,” he added. The risk is that Chega will lead Portugal along a race toward the far right, where stability and control are only possible through authoritarian means.

God, Country, Family, Work

“The fact that Chega voters are so nostalgic for Salazar’s authoritarian regime leaves no doubt as to what they want,” social scientist Luca Manucci and comparative politics scholar Steven M. Van Hauwaert wrote shortly before March’s elections.

Chega’s messaging openly references this. It not only adopted Salazar’s old slogan (“God, country, family”) but also added “work” to the roster. The copied motto worked as an indirect flirtation with Portugal’s fascist past — but also formed a link to a broader modern narrative, according to which the dominant parties have failed to protect citizens from unemployment, despair, and cultural humiliation. During Salazar’s rule, the threat was communism. In post-1974 Portugal, there have been a whole host of them: Brussels institutions, domestic corruption, the demise of law and order, and the effects of globalization.

Most far-right movements in Europe tell an evangelical tale of the genesis of the people — a phase of purity to be protected from outside perils. It is no coincidence that Chega’s charismatic leader, Ventura, is a former social democrat and academic, whose movement has turned Lisbon, a global metropolis, into a Chega stronghold. In March the party secured over 17 percent of the capital’s voters — almost doubling its 2022 score. A decade of austerity policies in the wake of the financial crisis, and Portugal’s submission to the “Troika” made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have undermined the duopoly previously enjoyed by the Socialists and the center-right Social Democrats.

After the counterrevolutionary coup in November 1975, which ended the “Carnation Revolution” that began in April 1974, these two parties had cemented a political system based on cordon sanitaire, where the ideological center was protected from outsiders at any cost. Any disruption was considered a threat to stability. The 2024 elections marked the end of this agreement. But this split also had a material basis: successive corruption scandals, inflated poverty levels, widespread homelessness, and sky-high living costs, especially in Lisbon.

Unwelcome Return

A broadening social malaise, financial insecurity, and political frustration have all given ammunition to Chega’s populist crusade against what it calls the Portuguese “deep state.” This affects the country’s view of itself, too. Gone is the so-called prescriptive forgetfulness that blew in over Portugal when the country joined the EU and rewrote its national narrative to echo the neoliberal 1980s. In those years, the collective memory of a “great empire” vanished, pushed out to the far-right fringes. Also marginalized were the “retornados” (“returnees”), the five hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand people who “returned to their Homeland” in the wake of independence for Portugal’s former African colonies.

Many of these had never set foot on Portuguese soil before their postcolonial flight, and others had emigrated as part of Salazar’s outward migration program during the 1950s. In the end, they were all denied refugee status by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the revolutionary Portuguese government. They were considered voluntary migrants who had never crossed any international border.

The returnees subsequently remained in an in-between position where their Portuguese accent — combined with their social and cultural roots far away from the imperial center — made them eternal foreigners. Two major narratives underpinned and sustained Portuguese identity in the democratic period, according to anthropologist Elsa Peralta:

First, the narrative of the empire and the Discoveries, inherited from colonial times and soon redeemed in the postcolonial period, according to which Portugal was the discoverer of the New World and the author of an exceptional colonialism, more tolerant and humane than what was practiced by other colonial powers. Second, the narrative of the “Carnation Revolution,” which freed the country from the yoke of the dictator and the oppressed peoples from the whip of the colonizer.

Historical revisionism in Portugal, Peralta adds, created a narrative where the country left its colonial and undemocratic past behind to become a European nation “distancing itself from a history increasingly repudiated throughout the world, particularly by Europe.”

Yet Chega’s electoral breakthrough last month — increasing its number of MPs from twelve to fifty — clearly counters the notion that after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, Portugal simply abandoned its self-image as a proud, global empire. Already in 2007, a surviving nostalgia and longing for a return to Salazar-era “stability and pride” came out into the open. That year, with 41 percent support, the dictator was voted “the greatest ever Portuguese figure” in a show on public broadcaster RTP — surpassing kings, poets, and sports stars.


In Salazar’s hometown of Santa Comba Dão, his star never fell. Rather, its official tourism industry and the dictator’s surviving relatives have actively sought to whitewash Salazar’s name and political deeds.

On the other side of the Dão River stands the pleasant village of Vimieiro. There, Salazar’s nephew Rui Salazar still watches over the late dictator’s birth home — a one-story house situated along the roadside, not far from the river. I managed to interview Rui in Vimieiro in 2014, amid the worst waves of Troika-stamped austerity policies in the wake of Portugal’s financial crisis. Rui was a stern man (like his uncle) who had to unlock more than a few chains at the gate before waving me in, passing a host of watchdogs.

Rui was blunt: Portugal had fallen apart since the fall of the Estado Novo founded by his uncle. While that regime survived even after Salazar fell into a coma in 1968, it was brought down in 1974 by the army captains who launched the Carnation Revolution.

“Just look at the countries that Portugal departed, that became independent,” he bemoaned. “After we left, everything broke down. The African colonies should have met the same fate as the Azores and Madeira; they should have been granted autonomy, and we would have maintained a presence and influence. All that got lost in the ‘so-called’ revolution in 1974.”

What Rui Salazar terms the “so-called” revolution was in fact the last true social revolution in Western Europe — and, historian Raquel Varela writes, one of the most historically important events of the twentieth century.

Between late April 1974 and November 1975, Varela adds, “hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, hundreds of workplaces were occupied sometimes for months and perhaps almost three million people took part in demonstrations, occupations and commissions.”

Overnight, the Portuguese population was emancipated. The Estado Novo’s patriarchal hold over women came to an end, and equal pay and equality became realistic political ambitions.

Not everyone approved. Rui Salazar was among those who considered the revolution a huge mistake. Not only that; it also laid the ground for something, “some kind of society,” that bears no resemblance to the country he grew up in. “Under the ‘Estado Novo,’” he tells me “at least you felt safe and could walk the streets after dark.” As he saw me off, with the gate chains in his hands, I was handed a bottle of port wine and a laminated photo of a young and smiling António de Oliveira Salazar. Next to the photo, italic characters proclaimed “Salazar: The Worker of the Homeland.”

Then Rui returned inside, where over sixty thousand of the belongings of his late uncle — letters, personal possessions, and documents that the nephew hoped would someday be displayed in a Salazar museum — spoke of a past not only the late dictator’s closest kin approach in nostalgic terms.

Turning Point

The financial crisis, according to Elsa Peralta, was a turning point in this regard. Amid the austerity policies initiated by the Troika, the then-center-right government tried to ease the pressure from opposition and critics by paving the way for a new historical narrative: one claiming that returnees and social minorities in Portugal were hung out to dry because of the political chaos that the far-left revolutionary movements produced after 1974. Blame on the democratic revolution for the political seeds that later produced the financial crisis coincided with the “loss of confidence in the democratic institutions of the country and the European project as a whole.”

This perfect political storm, Peralta concludes, leads “to a nostalgic yearning for the imperial past.” In Santa Comba Dão, however, the fate of the Salazar statue is a good example of the generation-spanning survival of the late dictator and his Estado Novo. On February 17, 1975 — not even a year after the Carnation Revolution — the citizens of Santa Comba Dão woke up to an embodied version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Salazar statue had been decapitated — the result of a mysterious nighttime intervention, inspired by the spirit of breathtaking social upheaval.

Still, in Santa Comba Dão, many felt estranged from the new political tides. Many felt dazed, like passengers on a sailboat that had lost its direction. Thus, amid the revolutionary spirit of the times, they opted for collective action: that is, a mobilization to collect money to replace Salazar’s lost head. The late dictator was, after all, their captain; a native, and a symbol of pride for an otherwise forgotten town in Portugal’s interior.

Beheading Salazar, in other words, contributed to the nostalgic mist that started to spread all over a Portugal on the brink of civil war. In November 1975, the Carnation Revolution, along with its social programs and direct-democratic approach, was itself decapitated by a military countercoup. The move was supported by the United States and various Western European countries, troubled by the possibility that Portugal might continue down the lane toward socialism, and ever further away from NATO and capitalism.

There was never any socialism implemented in Portugal, thanks to the November 1975 countercoup and the subsequent system directed, in tandem, by the main center-left and center-right parties. Instead, a new head was erected on top of Salazar’s mutilated stone body. In 1978, a “heading ceremony” took place and guaranteed Salazar a spot in the modern liberal-democratic Portugal. Santa Comba Dão had already become an obscure tourist destination for people who wanted to have a peek at the fallen dictator’s remaining torso. Others arrived to pay their respects to Portugal’s last strongman.

In 2010, the Salazar statue was finally removed — to the dismay of many inhabitants. A store owner, María, reminisces about her childhood in Lourenço Marques. As a returnee, she speaks of her “African homeland” and holds on to Portugal’s imperial vocabulary. Maputo — as Lourenço Marques has been called since Mozambique’s independence in 1975 — is “something else.”

“Down in the provinces, things worked, people were happy and worked hard,” María tells me. She dismisses as nothing but smears any objection to Portugal’s flagrant use of forced labor and debt in its African colonies. “That’s a simplified truth — it’s not black and white, there’s gray areas,” she insists.

Backward Facing

Chega embodies — and itself fuels — such postcolonial nostalgia, which has not only entered political discourse but gained real influence. The development bears deep structural roots, “traced through the country’s long history of inhabiting a peripheral position both in relation to Europe and to the modern capitalist system,” write Peralta and Lars Jensen.

Portugal’s colonial possessions, the duo adds, compensated for the country’s economic and political weakness within Europe. The 1974 revolution brought democracy to the Portuguese population, but at a price of financial independence, as the westernmost country in Europe came to rely on mighty economic forces such as Germany and France. This year marks a decade since Portugal’s exit from the bailout program, but the social scars of the austerity policy initiated by the Troika have, more than anything, increased a general longing for a national narrative where Portugal is a strong, proud, and influential nation. Such notions offer an escape from a reality marred by increased poverty, inflated costs of living, and lingering youth unemployment.

The Salazar statue in Santa Comba Dão is now long gone, replaced by a memorial fountain of a lost Portuguese empire. The spirit of the dictator stayed behind, albeit long only behind closed doors, mentioned around kitchen tables. Now, neo-Salazarismo is visible not only in the shape, discourse, and political program of Chega, but also in the official policy of his hometown. Santa Comba Dão today wants to establish itself as a pilgrimage site for those who mourn Portugal’s last strongman.

Both Chega’s leader and the critics of Salazar’s Estado Novo can agree that for four decades Portugal was captured by a political project that paused the tide of time and cemented a society based on patriarchy, the church, and the language of force. But when a movement like Chega opens the door to nostalgia about this past, rewriting history, it risks opening the door to a future beyond control.

In an interview with the Portuguese weekly Sabado, writer Joaquim Vieira warns against nostalgia without personal experience — a nostalgia in which all historical context gets lost. “It is one thing to write a narrative of what the regime was like and another thing to have lived during the period of the regime,” Vieira concludes, “because no narrative, however faithful, realistic, and authentic it may be, can replace the experience of what Salazarism really was.”