The Portuguese presidential election of 2021 took place on a cold January day. As the votes were counted on the evening of the 24th, it became clear that an ultra-conservative party had gained substantial popular support for the first time since the Carnation Revolution of 1974. The end of the so-called Portuguese exceptionalism in avoiding fascism since the overthrowing of the dictatorship, offers the perfect case-study of how it can happen everywhere.
A self-proclaimed nationalist party, Chega (“Enough” in Portuguese) was, according to its founder, André Ventura, created to represent “good” citizens. When he announced he was running in Portugal’s 2019 parliamentary election, no one thought it possible that he would get a seat. With too few refugees taken in to replicate the go-to talking point among the European far-right, Ventura turned inwards in a relentless campaign against the Roma community, who heavily deprived of education and job opportunities, has little way of survival other than accessing state benefits. This obsession with a tiny fraction of the welfare-receiving population spread like wildfire. Tapping into people’s financial anxieties, Ventura captured the imagination of thousands, who either shared his concerns or grew convinced they did.
After 2008, Portugal became the poster child for Troika imposed austerity, with ripple effects in the economy still felt today. Many have since been overworked, underpaid, or unemployed, and this financial desperation can easily mutate into a misleading sense of nostalgia for an imagined past. In Portugal, however, this make-believe “before” obscures the cold reality of a fascist dictatorship, where rates of literacy were among the worst in the world, and where women could not travel or open a bank account without written permission from their husbands. By speaking directly to those people, who feel frustrated and underrepresented, Ventura grew a following and his campaign rapidly evolved to propositions of physical castration for sex offenders and labour camps for “gypsies”.
When the parliamentary election of October 2019 came, it was no longer impossible to imagine Ventura getting himself into parliament. But in Portugal, a small country with a hugely disenfranchised electorate, 68,000 votes were just enough. Chega was no longer a fringe radical party, but a voice in the legislative chamber.
In parliament, Ventura gained a captive audience, using every opportunity to talk about his political agenda: making same-sex marriage and abortion illegal, deporting ethnic minorities, and putting an end to the nationalised education and healthcare systems. Either as an entertaining novelty or as someone who says much needed harsh truths, he became a magnet. The media ran daily stories about him. The mocking tone of most, further isolated his fan base who, begrudging having to defend their personal political opinions, grew more insular and increasingly radicalised.
At the first opportunity, Ventura jumped on the chance to campaign again. The presidential elections of January 2021 were the perfect occasion. The incumbent, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was a sure winner, but the race worked as a platform to consolidate and normalise Chega’s manifesto. Threats of quitting politics altogether if he didn’t beat the centre-left candidate, Ana Gomes, to second place, were impossible to take seriously coming from such a fiercely ambitious politician, but the message to voters was clear: show me your support and I will bring back our traditional values.
As the fragmented left failed to rally behind one single candidate – putting forward two of their own – and with the centre right-wing parties supporting the president’s re-election, Ventura’s candidacy gained momentum among the politically undecided, with polls showing a chance of him achieving the second place. When the votes were finally counted on the evening of 24 January, Ana Gomes had secured the runner-up position, but by too slim a margin for a collective sigh of relief. Just fifteen months after being elected to parliament with 68,000 votes, Ventura got almost 500,000, 12% of the total vote. With the next parliamentary elections just 2 years away, now is the time to assess what got us here.
While the history of Chega is thus far short, it is an important one. First, because the Portuguese image as the born-again democracy immune to fascist populism no longer holds. But mainly because it was avoidable – the disjointedness of the left; the media’s relentless race for views, casting Ventura as the lead character of all election coverage, while mainstreaming his racist and misogynistic discourse; and most of all, the lack of understanding by the progressive public about his appeal, and their hostility towards his supporters.
The biggest challenge ahead, in Portugal and everywhere, will be to regain the trust of the people who feel so disillusioned with conventional politics that they seek refuge in these anti-system figures. An open dialogue about why they became enamoured by the first politician who made them feel like they mattered is as good place to start.
Mariana Curado is studying the MSc Labour, Activism and Development at SOAS while working part-time in a music education organisation. Originally from Lisbon, Mariana has lived in London for 5 years, working in the third sector since. She writes in Portuguese and English on a variety of topics, from culture to history and politics.