Right-wing victory in Portugal: a European trend?

Television debate between Paulo Raimundo (left), secretary of the PCP, and Luís Montenegro (right), leader of Ad. In the middle, Rtp journalist João Adelino Faria.

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Right-wing victory in Portugal: a European trend?

Written by Marcello Sacco

Portugal's centre-right coalition narrowly defeated the centre-left in the general election on 10 March. But the real news is the success of the far-right party, which makes future political scenarios much more complex.

Portugal’s centre-right coalition narrowly defeated the centre-left in the general election on 10 March. But the real news is the success of the far-right party, which makes future political scenarios much more complex.

More than 10 million Portuguese voters went to the polls on 10 March to elect 230 deputies to the unicameral national parliament..

The Results gave a relative majority to the Democratic Alliance (29.4%), a centre-right coalition made up of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Social Democratic Centre (Cds-Pp), a popular and Christian Democratic party, and a third party, the small monarchist Popular Party (PPM).

The lead over the Socialists, who came second with 28.6 per cent, is now down to just two seats. Technically, this is not even a definitive lead, as we will have to wait until 20 March to know the result of the external vote, which will allow four more MPs to be elected. However, there is a good chance that the task of forming the new government will fall to Luís Montenegro, leader of the Ad and president of the Social Democratic Party (which in Portugal is a centre-right party that belongs to the European People’s Party family, along with Spain’s PP, Germany’s CDU, and Forza Italia).

But the big news of these elections is the performance of Chega, a party that can be described as extremist, populist, and sovereigntist. Chega! (whose name should always be written with an exclamation mark and means ‘enough’ in Portuguese) has made a meteoric rise in just a few years. Founded in 2019 by André Ventura, a former social democrat known to some viewers as a football commentator, it elected its founder as its only member of parliament that year. In 2022 it won 7% and 12 seats, while last Sunday it won 18% and an impressive 48 seats.

The dilemma of the traditional right

On the long election night of 10 March, as the head-to-head contest between the Ad and the Ps continued, the Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos conceded defeat with a speed that surprised even some pundits. It is true that his party, which has been in government since 2015 and is in a strong position with the 41% absolute majority it obtained in 2022, suffered a landslide. But the victory of Luís Montenegro – who had promised during the campaign, in response to pressing questions from journalists and political opponents, that he would not govern with the extreme right – is a lame victory that desperately needs a crutch. But Pedro Nuno Santos made it clear from the outset that the Socialists would not vote for a motion of censure against a possible minority government but would oppose it.

In Portugal, it is possible for a minority government to take office without an explicit motion of censure.. But in order to get legislation through parliament, it has to keep asking for votes. Even if it did not fall first, there would still be the Budget Act in the autumn, the important financial manoeuvre in which a government determines how, and with what cuts or increases in spending, it will finance its policies for the coming year. No party can get over the autumn hurdle without a solid parliamentary majority. The Democratic Alliance’s natural ally would be the small Liberal Initiative (IL) party, but its eight MPs would make little difference. So what do we do: renege on our promises and govern with the extreme right, perhaps in exchange for more or less cosmetic moderation? In Portugal, of course, everyone knows that the winds of the far right have been blowing across Europe (and beyond) for some time now. They are familiar with the barrages that the traditional parties have always fought against the radical right in Germany and France, while they also observe the looser barrages of the Italian right, where Forza Italia has always governed in coalition with the post-fascists and with the League, a xenophobic party. It is worth remembering that Chega has chosen as its European political family precisely the Identity and Democracy group, which includes the League, Encuentro nacional Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Alternative for Germany, a far-right group that often ends up under the watchful eye of the German secret services charged with defending the constitution.

Only in the coming weeks, perhaps months, will we understand the evolution of Portuguese politics, where for the first time we have a political landscape so fragmented and seemingly devoid of useful links for dialogue.

Conflict between the state powers

Looking at the dates of the elections mentioned so far, perhaps a brief summary of the previous episodes is in order. If Portugal voted in 2019 (when Chega entered parliament), why did it also vote in 2022 and 2024?

The autumn elections of 2019 followed the natural end of that legislature. The Ps, which had been in power since 2015 under Prime Minister Antonio Costa and had until then governed with the external support of radical left parties (PCP, Greens, and Left Bloc), won with 36.3% and formed precisely a new minority government, this time without an explicit cooperation agreement with the left. As in the scenario above, the finance bill presented in the autumn of 2021 did not receive the necessary support in parliament and the government fell. However, in the parliamentary elections of 30 January 2022, the electorate rewarded Costa and the PS by giving them an absolute majority.

However, what seemed to be the most solid executive in recent years fell on 7 November due to a judicial investigation that led to António Costa’s resignation.. This opens up a complex discourse on the need for judicial control over the legislative (parliament) and executive (government) bodies, but also on the devastating effect that the power of both the judiciary and the media (which amplify the echo of investigations), which themselves are not seriously regulated, can have on politics. The investigation that brought down the last Costa government and led to the current difficult political situation is far from over and deserves to be examined in its own right, especially because of its environmental implications (it involved contracts related to the digital and ecological transition). It should be noted, however, that some of these criminal hypotheses were rejected at the time by the examining magistrate himself, who examined them a few days after the now irreversible explosion of the political-institutional crisis.

It often happens that the legitimate desire to live in an honest and law-abiding society, faced with the complicated mechanisms by which both political and judicial work is carried out, is transformed into an angry frustration that alienates disillusioned voters from the complexities of democracy and drives them towards what analysts end up describing as a “protest vote”.

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Right-wing victory in Portugal: a European trend?

Written by Marcello Sacco

Portugal’s centre-right coalition narrowly defeated the centre-left in the general election on 10 March. But the real news is the success of the far-right party, which makes future political scenarios much more complex.

More than 10 million Portuguese voters went to the polls on 10 March to elect 230 deputies to the unicameral national parliament.. The Democratic Alliance, made up of the Psd, the Cds-Pp and the Ppm, won 29.4 percent of the vote, while the Socialists were left with 28.6 per cent

Currently,the centre-right alliancehas only two more seats than the Socialists, but the final result will also depend on the four MPs to be elected abroad on 20 March.

Luís Montenegro, leader of the Democratic Alliance, could be in charge of forming the new government.

A big surprise in these elections was the rise of Chega!, a far-right, populist and sovereigntist party. Founded in 2019 by André Ventura, a former social democrat and TV commentator, it has had considerable success: in 2022 it won 7% of the vote and 12 seats, while last Sunday it won 18% of the vote and an impressive 48 seats.

The dilemma of the traditional right

On the long election night of 10 March, Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos quickly conceded defeat, surprising many observers Although his party, in government since 2015 and with a 41 per cent majority in 2022, suffered a setback, Luís Montenegro’s victory was also helped by his pledge not to form a government with the far right. However, Santos has made it clear that the Socialists will oppose him without tabling a motion of censure.

In Portugal,a minority government can take office without an explicit no-confidence motionbut must then seek the necessary votes in parliament to pass each piece of legislation. The autumn budget law is a key test of the government’s stability, as it requires a solid parliamentary majority. Although the Democratic Alliance could find a natural ally in the Liberal Initiative, its eight MPs would make little difference.

In Portugal, as in the rest of Europe, the far right is a familiar phenomenon. While in Germany and France the traditional parties have always resisted the radical right, in Italy Forza Italia has often governed with the post-fascists and the Lega.

Chega! has decided to join the Identity and Democracy group, along with the League and other European far-right parties. The future of Portuguese politics, with a fragmented political landscape and no apparent common ground, will only become clear in the coming weeks or months.

Conflict between the state powers

The 2019 Portuguese elections marked the natural end of a legislative period. The Socialist Party (PS), in power since 2015 with António Costa as prime minister, had governed with the external support of radical left parties. After the vote, Costa formed a new minority government without an explicit cooperation agreement with the left. However, the government fell in 2021 when its budget proposal failed to gain the necessary support. In the January 2022 elections, the electorate rewarded Costa and the PS with an absolute majority.

Despite looking like the strongest executive in recent years, the government fell on 7 November 2024 due toa judicial investigation that forced António Costa to resign.. This raises complex questions about the control of the judiciary over the legislative and executive branches, as well as the impact of media amplification of investigations. The investigation, which concerns contracts related to the digital and ecological transition, is still ongoing and also has important environmental implications.

This situation may fuel voter frustration and lead to what analysts call a ‘protest vote’, as the complexity of the political and judicial dynamics may cause them to lose faith in democracy.

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