d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 15.03.2024

It came as a surprise for many in Portugal that Pedro Nuno Santos, the leader of the Socialist Party (PS), conceded his defeat last Sunday, even before the final results were known. So far, the parliamentary election results are what the poll experts usually label “too close to call”. The centre-right coalition (AD, that includes PSD, CDS and PPM), got 29,4 percent of the votes, electing 79 MPs out of 230. The PS got 28,6 percent and elected 77. But there are still four MPs to be elected, those that result from the emigration vote (two in the European district, the other two in the “rest of the world” district), including the 38 000 Portuguese voters that live in Luxembourg. The final outcome will only be revealed next Wednesday, 20th of March.

In 2022, three out of those four foreign districts went to PS MPs, leaving only one to the centre-right. If the same happens this time, PS would be the biggest party in Parliament, with 80 MPs. That would force President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to invite Pedro Nuno Santos to form a government. But, as we know, he already declared his defeat, congratulating his opponent Luís Montenegro, the leader of PSD, for his predictable, but uncertain, victory.

Apparently, this is an election that nobody is willing to win. This is also an election that nobody can fully explain. Not even why it happened in the first place. On November 7th 2023, prime minister António Costa resigned after a statement from the public prosecution that included, in the last paragraph of a vaguely written three page announcement, a mention of him. He was named as a possible “influencer” (the actual code name for the judicial investigation) by some of the suspects, in an investigation into three different big investments in lithium, hydrogen and data centres. Costa was not considered to be a suspect himself, but he argued that the suspicion of having something to do with the case was enough for him to resign.

The President agreed. Costa tried to convince the President that he could be replaced by the former Finance minister and current central bank governor Mário Centeno (the “Ronaldo of Ecofin”, as the conservative German minister Wolfgang Schäuble once called him). Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa decided to summon elections instead, even though the PS had a comfortable absolute majority in Parliament. Until today, Costa was not called to testify in the judicial case. He constantly uses sarcasm to thank journalists for explaining to him what happens in the case that cost him his office.

In this blurred context, last Sunday’s election was a challenge for all the parties. Except for the far-right, as it uses corruption as main theme in its professional online propaganda machine.

Voter tournout was massive, making this the most participated election since 1995. Abstention decreased. But the results are so complex that it seems that Pedro Nuno Santos was relieved when he conceded his party’s defeat ahead of time.

Since democracy was gained on the 25th of April 1974 during the carnation revolution, Portugal has been a bi-partisan regime where the centre-left PS and the centre-right PSD alternated in power, alone or in coalition. After this election, neither the traditional right (that includes, besides A, the liberal party IL) nor the left (PS plus the left-wing BE, CDU and Livre) can form that majority. The left block has secured 90 seats while the right got 87, both far from the 115 they would need to approve legislation. Since both blocks are unwilling to negotiate with the far-right party Chega, this means that only a minority executive will be possible. It seems quite likely that it won’t last the entire four years.

The traditional right has has the first move since election day. Luis Montenegro will be called to form a government after the final results are in next week. He can negotiate an agreement with IL, since both parties’ programmes are easily compatible, but that is not enough to survive in a Parliament where the left has even more seats. During the campaign Montenegro repeated that “no means no” when asked if he would include the far-right in negotiations. Within the PSD, several groups question the leader’s reluctance and favour an agreement with Chega as it would guarantee an absolute majority in Parliament.

But the recent European far-right surge shows many examples of how the traditional centre-right is vulnerable to that dangerous trade-off. With more than a million voters on his side, the far-right leader André Ventura was prompt to threaten. He said his party will vote against the first budget of a new government, led by Montenegro, if Chega isn’t included in any negotiations. This would mean a new parliamentary election in less than a year. 

But Chega may have a different strategy, gaining time to revert the negative effects of voting together with the left in order to overthrow a conservative government. The far-right will probably approve the first budget without compromising on its policies to later reject the following one and be able to win some votes with the installed stalemate.

Portugal was one of the last European countries to experience the chaotic effect of the far-right in the political debate. Up until 2019 there was no far-right MP in Parliament – but Chega rapidly grew from one to the current 48 seats.

While they wait for post-electoral studies that will reveal the demographics of the one million far-right voters, politicians, pundits and political scientists are trying to understand this huge change in the electoral map.

Chega considers “gender ideology” everything related to women’s rights. According to the 2022 results, two out of every three votes for this party come from young mid-educated (high-school degree level) males.

The far-right party was able to secure a large part of the protest vote this time, after a succession of international crises that deepened the perception of inequality in a country that still tries to survive the effects of the euro-crisis. The inflation due to the war in Ukraine, followed by the European Central Bank’s decision to increase interest rates, which dramatically affected housing prices – all of this it certainly affected voters’ decisions.

While the socialist government was achieving its goals (budget surpluses, debt reduction), voters were angry about the effects of budget restraints on public health services, on salary reductions imposed on teachers and police forces.

Chega garnered this discontent, even though its electoral promise was to bring back the tax-evasion scheme, called “golden visas”. It allows foreign millionaires (including Russian plutocrats) to buy real-estate in Portugal - a contradictory policy that can worsen the current speculation responsible for the rise in real estate prices in Lisboa and Porto – while short-term rental business for tourists is still scarcely regulated.

But the Portuguese far-right is also able to attract the typical racist, xenophobic vote. Campaigning against migrant rights, targeting the Romani communities in the south (where it is now the second biggest party, after the socialists), far-right leader André Ventura tries to copy the core values of other emerging European populist parties. Ventura himself criticised the racist and cultural biases in security laws when he wrote his doctoral thesis in law less than 10 years ago. Contradiction is apparently not a problem for the far-right voters.

Chega combines racist propaganda with economic protest, but it is mostly a mishmash of political ambition and digital strategies that attracts a population increasingly informed only on social media. This ambition is evident when we see the names of some of the elected far-right MPs, who were in the recent past members of other parties. Ventura is one of those cases, starting his political career as a defeated candidate for PSD in a local election, seven years ago. His party’s propaganda machine is the country’s top case for political use of disinformation on Tik-Tok, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.

The contrast is evident. Traditional parties try to secure their votes through traditional arguments; and that seems far from attracting new voters. Even with a high level of discontent, PSD and its coalition parties were unable to improve their 2022 result. PS lost more than 10 percent of the votes but almost none of the left benefitted from the government’s erosion. The only exception is Livre, with three new MPs. This pro-European environmentalist party was able to express some engaging proposals - like a universal basic income - to persuade new voters.

But the big parties PS and PSD mostly repeated their old formulas. While the centre-left tried to convince the majority about the virtues of the current track with some improvements, the centre-right’s main idea was a “tax shock” - a reduction of corporate and income tax. This was the same policy that led Durão Barroso, in 2001, and Passos Coelho, in 2011, to power. The problem is that it didn’t work either time.

This leaves a small window for optimism. Knowing that the current parliament will be unmanageable without a coherent majority ahead, traditional parties have a few months to prepare for the next, foreseeable, election. Maybe then some will be able to think about the value of hope in politics, trying to propose policies that reflect people’s aspirations for a better future. Until then, the coast is clear for the far right to shape the hate and fear driven propaganda that conquered 18 percent of the votes last Sunday.

Paulo Pena
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