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What next for Portugal after far right gains ground?

March 12, 2024

Portugal is the latest EU state to veer to the political right, in a likely harbinger of upcoming European Parliament elections.

Andre Ventura of Portugal's far-right Chega party addresses flag-waving supporters
Andre Ventura and his far-right Chega party appeared to be the night's biggest winners, rocking Portugal's political establishmentImage: Andre Dias Nobre/AFP/Getty Images

The future of Portuguese politics remained unclear on Monday after polls saw the opposition center-right Democratic Alliance take a marginal lead over the ruling center-left Socialist Party, but fall short of the number of seats needed for a governing majority.

With virtually all of the votes from Sunday's election counted, the two traditional political blocs were far ahead of their rivals. But with European Parliament elections looming in June, the explosive ascent of the far-right, anti-immigration Chega party has received the most attention.

According to Monday's results, the Democratic Alliance (AD) coalition won 79 seats in the 230-seat legislature, followed by the ruling Socialists with 77 — a significant drop from the 120 seats it took in 2022.

Chega ("Enough"), which quadrupled its seats to 48, has emerged as a powerful third force that is likely to play a major role in the coming tussle to establish a government. Chega first appeared on Portugal's political landscape in 2019, founded by lawyer and former TV commentator Andre Ventura, who has been frequently lambasted for his negative comments about Portugal's Roma community.

Chega's performance on Sunday represents the most serious challenge yet to the domination of the two major centrist parties — both of which have been in place since the consolidation of Portugal's parliamentary regime at the end of its fascist dictatorship in 1974.

Portugal election: Center-right wins narrow victory

AD leader Luis Montenegro, who has repeatedly stressed that he would not work with Chega, signaled that he expects to be tapped by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to form a new government, according to news agency Reuters. "The Portuguese know that only in the Democratic Alliance can they find security and vision for a Portugal of the future. It's time for change," Montenegro wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

For their part, the Socialists have been beset by a corruption scandal involving energy contracts that triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Antonio Costa in November. Although Costa himself was never named as a suspect, his departure and the dissolution of parliament set the stage for new elections. On Sunday, the party quickly conceded defeat and made clear that it planned to go into the opposition rather than attempt to form a government.

That result is also in line with a downturn for traditional center-left parties seen more broadly in the EU, for example in Germany with the Social Democrats.

A group of Portuguese Socialists look on in disbeliefe as election returns are announced
It was a somber night for Portugal's Socialists, who wound up being the night's biggest losersImage: Joao Henriques/AP Photo/picture alliance

Will Portugal's election results foreshadow EU vote?

Chega's success on Sunday was linked to a variety of factors, Joao Ferreira Dias of the University Institute of Lisbon told DW.

A "craving for a savior-like leader, widespread political disengagement among the population [...] rural communities feeling neglected, demographic shifts marked by a rapid increase in immigrants in previously unaffected areas, and a perception of corruption among political elites," he listed off in an email.  "These phenomena are neither unique nor specific to Portugal."

Portugal's far right party set to make gains in election

Portugal, long considered one of the EU's few remaining countries with no major populist right party, is the latest in a string of member states to swing to the right in national polls, with far-right parties even entering coalition government in places like Italy. Ahead of EU elections set for June, parties with similar views to Chega are expected to fare well.

In an extensive forecast released in January, the European Council on Foreign Relations predicted that the radical right-wing Identity and Democracy parliamentary faction, to which Chega belongs, would become the third largest in the EU legislature, with repercussions for foreign and environmental policy.

The traditional center-right group, the European People's Party, looks set to hold on to its lead position despite faring worse, according to ECFR's report. The centrist Liberals, the Greens and the center-left Socialists all look poised to lose seats.

"The main winners in the elections will be the populist right," the report's authors predicted. "Anti-European populists are likely to top the polls in nine member states [...] and come second or third in a further nine countries."

What's next for Portugal?

AD leader Montenegro could rule at the head of a minority government, though this would make pushing through legislation difficult and spell instability for the country. The outcome remains difficult to predict, and a fresh election can't be ruled out, said Ferreira Dias.

Portugal's Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Democratic Alliance (AD) leader Luis Montenegro speaks following the result of a general election in Lisbon
AD leader Montenegro could rule at the head of a minority governmentImage: Stringer/Anadolu/picture alliance

Politically speaking, it would be difficult for Montenegro to team up Chega. This would be viewed as a "betrayal" by moderate AD voters, he said. "Due to its illiberal stances and engagement in culture wars, such as opposing the so-called "gender ideology" or immigration control, the Chega party faces significant public disapproval."

Nonetheless, Chega's Ventura has made clear he wants to be in government. If Montenegro fails to form a government, AD could even replace him with a leader willing to work with Chega, said Ferreira Dias.

Chega's EU allies celebrate gains

The leader of Spain's far-right Vox party, Santiago Abascal, welcomed the election results. "Congratulations to our Portuguese neighbors and friends. Congratulations to Andre Ventura for this great result," Abascal wrote on X.

Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister and leader of the right-wing populist League party, similarly hailed Ventura as a "friend and ally."

"The wind of change is blowing strong across Europe, waiting for June 9," Salvini wrote on X, looking ahead to the coming EU polls.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler