Portuguese elections: The rise of 'Centre-Right' and surge of right-wing extremism

The results hint at Portugal’s shift towards more conservative right-wing politics

PORTUGAL-POLITICS-ELECTION-VOTE Democratic Alliance (AD) leader Luis Montenegro celebrates his victory as he addresses supporters at the party's election night headquarters, in Lisbon | AFP

The leader of Portugal’s centre-right Democratic Alliance (AD), Luis Montenegro, the 51-year-old advocate and president of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), has claimed a razor-thin victory in the closely contested parliamentary elections that also saw the far-right surge.

The results highlight Portugal’s shift towards more conservative right-wing politics that is surfacing all over Europe. AD and its conservative allies have together won 79 seats, ahead of the Socialist Party (PS) 77 seats. 

Historically, Portugal, having transitioned back to democratic governance 50 years ago following a fascist regime, was thought to be resistant to the continent-wide upswing in right-wing populism. This trend is anticipated to favour far-right parties in the upcoming European elections in June too. 

The man of the hour, Luis Montenegro, has won the elections and now has refused to negotiate with Chega, a national conservative, right-wing populist political party.

In the beginning, it was unclear if Luis could attain the majority without Chega’s support. At the same time, Chega has tightened its role as the third-largest parliamentary power and quadrupled its previous 12 seats to 48 lawmakers in the 230-seat legislature, giving the combined right a majority. 

The South of Portugal’s map was painted with the dark blue of Chega, marking their victory in the Algarve region. This is the first time in 33 years that a party other than the PS or PSD has secured a win in this district and Andre Ventura, the former football pundit-turned-politician, has now risen to the role of a potential kingmaker.

The call for a new election arose following the resignation of the Socialist Prime Minister, António Costa, in November. This occurred amidst the initiation of an inquiry into purported corruption associated with his government’s management of significant environmental investment initiatives. Costa, who had been in office since 2015 and secured an unexpected absolute majority in the 2022 general election, still has not faced any criminal charges. He said that he had no choice but to step down because "the duties as the prime minister are not compatible with any suspicion of my integrity." He had also announced that he would not be running for prime minister in the election, leaving the Socialist party in the hands of Pedro Nuno Santos, a 46-year-old economist and former minister of housing and infrastructure. Although Nuno Santos is linked to the left faction, his affluent family origins have led to him being dubbed a "caviar leftist." Post Costa’s resignation, the President of Portugal, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, dissolved the parliament and called for a new election on the 10th of March, 2024. 

On Monday afternoon, Montenegro reassured his election promise that he will not be joining hands with Chega nor any of the populists, although it is clear that AD needs 116 seats in total to form the majority. Speculations are that AD would rely on the Liberal Initiative party (IL), which won 8 seats, to form the government. 

"I have consistently said that a victory in the elections would be defined by securing just one more vote than any other contestant, and I would only agree to assume the role of prime minister under those conditions," he declared to his party’s supporters post the result declaration. 

He even added that the parties in the new parliament should "comply with the wish of the Portuguese people and act more responsible".

"It was unavoidable that the AD has triumphed in the elections while the Socialists have not," he continued, following the initial polls indicating AD’s narrow win over the Socialists, who have been governing since 2015, in the Sunday elections. 

Pedro Nuno Santos, the head of the Socialist Party, acknowledged the loss and extended his congratulations to the Democratic Alliance for their win. He also added, "We will remain as the strongest opposition, this cannot be trusted in the hands of Chega". The PS has been a central pillar of Portuguese politics and has been in office the longest since the fascist dictatorship ended in 1974. 

The far-right party campaigned on an anti-establishment and demagogic ideology, vowing to sweep away corruption and expressing hostility to what it sees as "excessive immigration" and "job-stealing". 

"One must understand that what Ventura says about immigration and job stealing is senseless, he's just trying to deviate the bigger problems like the housing crisis and wage problems with silly matters," says Joao Pedro, a senior journalist and activist in Lisbon. “The jobs he talks about are the lowly ones the Portuguese would dare to do, what’s the point in complaining for a job you won't do and others doing it?" he added.

Europe’s problem with immigration and xenophobia is nothing new, the waves have already hit the shores of other European countries and have also seen a rise in Portugal with recent activities from Grupo 1143, privatisation of public spaces and stopping the Brazilian carnival from happening by the Lisbon City Council. 

"The media will never show that immigrants have contributed seven times more than the other working class," says Pedro Rebelo, senior writer and member of the Left Bloc party. "It’s funny how the West looks at “immigration”, there are people from other countries of Europe who work here (Portugal), but they are French, Italians or even Ukrainians, but never labelled as immigrants – those are for the poor countries," he laughs off.

Andre Ventura spoke with reporters post voting and said that "the Portuguese need a Democratic Alliance government with the support of Chega". He even warned AD and Montenegro that any instability in the future would be his sole responsibility if he didn’t join hands with Chega.

On the eve of elections, AD supporter Paula Medeiros said "Instability will remain, without doubt, but how we will tackle it is going to be the answer."

"I am terribly sad and shocked" lamented a lawyer and PS party member Nuno Ferreira, mentioning Chega’s growth in recent years. "I fear the state of the State (Portugal) now, it (right-wing fascism) has finally knocked on our doors too..." says Joaquim Manuel, a teacher and Left-wing supporter.

President Marcelo is yet to formally invite the AD leader to form a government, which Montenegro said to happen soon after the decision of the coalition. 

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