Was Portugal’s Election a Breakthrough for the Far-Right?

The incumbent president won in a landslide, but a populist right-wing candidate raised eyebrows in a country that has so far avoided extremes.

André Ventura, the leader of Chega, delivers a speech in Lisbon on Jan. 24.
André Ventura, the leader of Chega, delivers a speech in Lisbon on Jan. 24. PEDRO ROCHA/AFP via Getty Images

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won reelection in a landslide on Jan. 24, taking 61 percent of the vote. An independent candidate, Rebelo de Sousa came to power five years ago with the support of a center-right coalition—a counterweight to the Socialist Party in the Portuguese parliament. But the most recent election may have disrupted that delicate balance.

After a beloved incumbent wins so handily, it’s not often that the focus is on the candidate who came in third place. But the right-wing politician André Ventura is not a normal candidate. His 12 percent showing in the race for the presidency—a largely symbolic position—raises the question of whether the far-right is on the rise in Portugal, which has so far proved immune to the populist tactics employed so successfully elsewhere in Europe.

Until 2019, Portugal had not experienced a hint of the radical right-wing populism that its neighbors have grappled with in recent years, especially anti-immigrant rhetoric and rising calls for law and order. The relative success of Ventura on Sunday may signal a shifting tide, but much could change before the next parliamentary election.

How did Portugal get here?

A former sports commentator, Ventura first appeared on Portugal’s political scene in 2017 as a candidate for the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) during regional elections in Loures, on the outskirts of the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. Although he lost that election, Ventura made a name for himself as an outspoken politician with a penchant for fanning the flames of politically charged debates, such as those surrounding Roma encampments and immigration policy.

By 2019, Ventura had enough political clout—and disagreements with the PSD—to form his own party called Chega, or “Enough.” The party platform was based on populist ideals but light on policy objectives. That year, Ventura secured a single seat in the parliament.

It was the first time a candidate from a far-right party had gained power on the national stage, marking an end to the period of Portuguese exceptionalism to the populist sentiment gaining traction across Europe. “This representation completely changed the game for the populist radical right,” said Mariana Mendes, a researcher at Dresden University of Technology.

The victory granted enough legitimacy to Chega and enough intrigue to Ventura to capture regular media coverage. Like former U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and other skilled political showmen, Ventura used the media attention to hone his divisive rhetoric and widen his audience—and to make waves in the presidential campaign.

How does Ventura fit into the global far-right?

Ventura follows in the footsteps of a long list of established radical right-wing politicians—even going so far as to invite France’s Marine Le Pen to join him on the campaign trail—but his populism seems to be a slightly different brand from that of his European counterparts.

According to Mendes, who has studied the rise of the radical right across Europe, the socioeconomic factors that have given rise to populism elsewhere have been present in Portugal for years. The emergence of a party like Chega and someone like Ventura was only a matter of time.

In terms of ideology, Chega embodies some hallmarks of 21st-century far-right groups: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. Ventura sowed the seeds of his political career by targeting the Roma and demonizing the poor, touting the necessity for law and order, and adopting an anti-establishment stance. As if following a script, Ventura made headlines when he tweeted that a Black parliamentarian should go back to her country of origin, reflecting Trump and Bolsonaro before him.

But in Portugal, “anti-establishment sentiment plays a larger role” within the emerging far-right than in many other European countries, where nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric is stronger, Mendes said. The Portuguese have a higher level of distrust in their democracy than most populations. This discontentment could fuel a unique brand of far-right populism in Portugal that doesn’t rely primarily on anti-immigrant sentiment.

Was Sunday’s result surprising?

Portuguese pollsters can pat themselves on the back, as the election results matched predictions almost to the percentage point.

Rebelo de Sousa has been nicknamed the “President of Affections” for his friendly nature and habit of posing for selfies with supporters. His high approval ratings are remarkable in a country characterized by political apathy and skepticism, and he won by a comfortable margin, earning nearly 10 points more than his first time on the ballot in 2016.

While Ventura may have hoped to take the race to the second round, he didn’t even take second place. But he increased his share of the national vote from around 1 percent in the 2019 parliamentary election to 12 percent in the presidential election, and this rapid ascent has taken the spotlight over Rebelo de Sousa’s strong victory.

The second-place candidate, the socialist Ana Gomes, earned just 13 percent of the total tally—a smaller share of the vote than the party’s candidate in the previous election but still enough votes to make history in Portugal as the most percentage points won by a female presidential candidate.

What happens next?

Whether the right wing continues rising in Portugal with Ventura at the helm depends largely on whether the enigmatic leader can shore up support for his party. Presidential elections in Portugal often reflect approval of a candidate rather than of his or her party, which takes the forefront in parliamentary elections. Sunday’s turnout was abnormally low—around 40 percent—likely due to the coronavirus pandemic or an unmotivated electorate.

A lot can happen before Portugal’s next parliamentary election, set for late 2023. With a radical right-wing party on the national political scene, Portugal’s established center-right and right-wing parties have two choices: to work with Chega to form an alliance against the left through shared policy objectives or to attempt to shut radical parties out of mainstream politics by refusing to form a coalition with them—at risk of weakening the right’s bargaining power.

If the trajectory of the far-right elsewhere in Europe is any indicator, neither choice will totally squash the movement in Portugal. The Northern League in Italy and Vox in Spain, both far-right parties with short political histories, moved away from the fringe and into the mainstream through alliances with the center. On the other hand, the far-right Alternative for Germany has gained support in recent years despite being shunned by major conservative parties.

The experience of Ireland, which has also so far remained beyond the grip of the far-right, provides another possible scenario. In the 2018 presidential election, the independent candidate Peter Casey stirred up long-dormant resentments against Travellers and welfare recipients to a strong second-place finish. But his attempt to repeat the result in last year’s parliamentary election met with failure.

Then, an unprecedented left-leaning wave swept the country, leaving little room for right-wing populism. But given the moribund state of Portugal’s left, Ventura currently seems unlikely to just fade away.

Correction, Jan. 28, 2021: Mariana Mendes is a researcher at Dresden University of Technology. A previous version of this article misstated her title.

Katie Livingstone is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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