18 March 2024

The End of an Exception? The Rise of Far-Right Populism in Portugal

Legislative elections were held in Portugal on 10 March 2024 and saw the insurgence of the far-right populist party Chega. Filipe Calvão, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Geneva Graduate Institute, delves into the matter.

The most recent elections in Portugal, eight years into a comfortable majority by the Socialist Party, tilted the country’s political landscape towards the right. With almost 20% of the votes, the new insurgent far-right populist party Chega (“Enough”) became the third largest political force in the country, trailing behind the two main parties (Socialist Party, center-left, and the coalition “Democratic Alliance”, center-right) by only 600,000 votes. It moved from one representative in 2019 to 48 in 2024, managing to elect a parliamentarian in practically every district and surpassing all other parties in a few key circumscriptions. With four representatives yet to be attributed and the main two political parties in a dead heat, the leader of the major center-right party and presumptive new Prime Minister has drawn a line in the sand by opposing any negotiations with Chega. And yet, the key to a stable government lies now with this far-right party, founded by a charismatic dissident from center-right PSD and inspired by similar populist movements across the world.

These results confirm the growing success of the radical populist playbook: staunch opposition to immigration, hostility to so-called “cultural Marxism” –  including feminist and LGBT rights –  and an anti-corruption discourse that resonates in a country that has seen its share of fraud and embezzlement scandals (despite Chega’s leader’s own misgiving’s with the law and rumors of illicit foreign funding). These elections were, after all, prompted by the resignation of then Prime Minister and leader of the Socialist Party António Costa, following a large-scale investigation by the Attorney General that directly implicated the prime minister and his office in a corruption scandal.

Portugal had been hailed as an exception in Europe, politically sheltered from the wave of right-wing populist wave rising across the continent. Yet, as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, which put an end to four decades of the authoritarian Estado Novo regime, the question swirling in most people’s heads these days is: who are the million people who voted Chega?

Though not entirely unexpected, the rise of Chega holds important lessons for mainstream parties and the future of democracy in Europe. The first is the problem of an economy that does not work for all. Despite GDP growth and positive macro-economic indicators, the main parties have been unable to respond to the growing housing crisis, faltering health care system and other public services. Furthermore, the massive job precarity that has seen 15% of the total population migrate over the last twenty years, with a corresponding number of foreign migrants settling in the country (roughly 16% of the population). The dual effect of human desertification and poverty with long-standing conservative ideologies created the breeding grounds for Chega. 

While it may be too early to declare the end of bipartisanship, the second lesson deals with the failure of the two main center parties (the “centrão”, or big center) to capitalise on the growing popular discontentment of disaffected voters. Despite the lowest abstention rate in three decades, the main parties scored the lowest share of the vote in 50 years of democracy: the center-right coalition maintained its results from the previous elections, whereas the Socialist Party saw a significant number of voters moving to Chega. These results could also deal a fatal blow on the myth of tolerance and non-racism in the country as the areas with the larger number of foreign migrants –  Algarve and regions of Alentejo –  overlap with Chega’s highest results. However, these voters should not be seen as a new rendition of the “deplorables”, driven solely by racism and xenophobia. Despite a majority of male voters and the smallest number of college graduates of all parties, Chega also had the highest number of younger voters (18-24), by itself a disquieting post-electoral revelation.

Instead, these voters need to be taken seriously in any reflection on the future of democracy. Rather than the nostalgic celebration of the slogan that “Fascism never again”, the task ahead is to dismantle the myth of “populism”,  exposing in no uncertain terms the intimate ties of Chega with economic elites and other opaque interests. Only an alternative that can respond to and benefit all will allow democracy to resound across the continent: we have had enough of Chega.