Far-right party polls show Portugal not immune to populism

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André Ventura honed his belligerent political style as a pundit on Benfica football club’s TV channel and other football shows which regularly degenerated into insults and shouting matches.

His quick polemics were delivered to a much wider audience during the campaign for Portugal’s legislative elections, which will be held on Sunday, as the far-right populist Chega party he founded aims to play a role in government.

Polls show that Chega, which translates to ‘That’s enough’, could become the third largest party, a result that would extinguish the idea – cherished by many Portuguese until recently – that the country was immune to far-right populism.

As the gap in the polls between the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and the opposition centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) narrows, it could also make Chega’s support vital for the formation of political leaders. a centre-right government.

“There will be no right-wing government without Chega,” Ventura told supporters during a recent campaign stop in northern Portugal, as he stood in front of a poster that promised to upend the system .

Ventura, who recently celebrated his birthday by posting a photo on social media of himself praying in church, created Chega less than three years ago and is his only public face.

The son of a Lisbon bike shop owner who attended a Catholic seminary before studying law, Ventura worked as a lecturer and tax adviser before entering politics as a local PSD councilor. He quit the party in 2018 and is now talking about becoming deputy prime minister in a government led by the Social Democrats.

Campaign debates and social media have given the 39-year-old a platform for a series of controversial proposals, including life imprisonment for violent crimes, chemical castration for paedophiles, a tax rate unique and a drastic reduction in the size of parliament.

Corruption is a constant theme. “These bandits have been stealing from our country for decades,” he told his supporters at a campaign dinner, proposing steep increases in prison terms for corruption.

During walks through the city center, flag-waving supporters cheer and opponents heckle. “Find a job,” called a man from the northern city of Aveiro, throwing back to Ventura the phrase that Chega activists often shout at their detractors.

Just as opponents describe his pundit career on TV as driven by a desire for media exposure rather than a passion for football, they see his politics as driven more by personal ambition than fervor. ideological.

“Ventura comes from the moderate PSD, not from an extremist background,” said António Costa Pinto, professor of politics at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.

Yet while Portugal does not have significant immigration issues, Ventura has sought to stigmatize the country’s small Roma community and was fined by Portugal’s anti-racial discrimination commission for comments on social media About them.

He repeatedly described people receiving state benefits as having “a Mercedes on their doorstep”, saying many were “welfare thieves”. In a country where one in five people is at risk of falling below the poverty line, he offered no evidence for his claims.

A court last year ordered him to apologize to a family of African descent whom he had insulted during a televised debate, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court, which found that the remarks were in racist part. “Minorities have rights, but also responsibilities,” Ventura said last year during a march organized by the party under the slogan “Portugal is not racist.”

Ventura was unavailable for an interview and Chega did not respond to a request for comment.

Ventura with Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally, ahead of Portugal’s presidential election last year, in which he won nearly 12% of the vote © Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty

Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party, traveled to Lisbon to support his campaign, as did Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Rally, during the Portuguese presidential election last year. In 2020, Chega accepted an invitation to join Identity and Democracy, a far-right group in the European Parliament.

The party only won 1.4% of the vote in 2019, with Ventura elected as the first and only MP. But he won nearly 12% of the vote in the presidential election two years later, as right-wing party politics fractured in opposition to a radical left-backed PS government.

Chega could win more than 6% of the vote on Sunday, according to polls, to overtake the Left Bloc and the Communists. Both far-left groups have supported António Costa’s minority socialist government since 2015, but voters risk punishing them for calling the election two years earlier than expected by rejecting its 2022 budget.

If Chega can secure third place, Rui Rio, the PSD leader seeking to replace Costa as prime minister, would need the party’s support to form a viable government. He, however, ruled out any government role for Ventura’s party.

“It will happen, if not after this election, at least after the next one,” said Francisco Pereira Coutinho, professor of constitutional law at Nova University in Lisbon. “It will be impossible to have a majority on the right without the populists.”

Before the rise of Chega and Vox, Spain’s third-largest party, political analysts argued that the long right-wing dictatorships that lasted into the 1970s had “inoculated” the two countries against the wave of nationalist populism which emerged in Europe.

But half a century after the demise of those regimes, Portuguese voters are less worried about being socially shamed for openly holding right-wing views.

Parliamentary arithmetic means it is not just Portuguese voters who face a choice. “Sooner or later,” said Pereira Coutinho, “a losing PS will have to choose between making a minority PSD government viable by abstaining in parliamentary votes or forcing it to turn to Chega for support.”

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