Portugal at risk of becoming the Venezuela of Europe says Chega party leader

 In 2024 General Election, Events, News

The leader of Portugal’s far-right ‘populist’ party Chega, André Ventura, warned that if Portugal didn’t get to grips on high taxation and spending on client politics then the country faced a real risk of ending up like Venezuela.

Speaking at a lunch organised by the International Club of Portugal (ICPT) in Lisbon on Thursday, the man who founded Chega in 2019, and whose party has been involved in all party elections since its founding and first party congress in July of that year, said Portugal was at a “political crossroads” because it stood on the threshold of elections, but also an economic, social, and civilisational crossroads”.

The Portuguese parliamentary deputy, lawyer and former councillor for Loures – a large town near Lisbon – asked if Portugal wanted to continue to be a country with a “not very promising economy” with “low salaries” and “little investment” and a “high tax burden” with a “high level of bureaucracy”, or become a country on a level with the richest countries in Europe and the world, with ambitions to look to others on an equal footing?.”

“This is not propaganda; there are two models at the moment: one that is predominantly socialist; and the other which is not, which is why it is vital to reorganise the right,” he said.

Ventura stressed that what he had to say had nothing to do with party politics, but rather had to do with fundamental policy choices.

“The country that we have right now within the current European framework continues to focus on a low salaried economy. It is a country that has had to and is forced to rely on immigration because of the subsidy dependent culture we have created, which has fostered deep-rooted networks all over the country of families, cultures and societies that don’t want to work and contribute,” he said.

André Ventura admitted that the country was “not prepared to hear this”, which was why he spoke of a “civilisational struggle”.

People not willing to work

The creation of a culture of subsidised dependency was not confined to Portugal alone. “Of course we have to offer dignity to people in this situation, and this has never been in question. I have travelled all over the country and it is embarrassing to find small, medium and large-sized business owners, which in addition to their tax burden which is very high; not to mention the excess of red tape in which Portugal must hold the record for compared to any other country in Europe; say to me: “Mr Ventura, we can’t find people willing to work”.

The politician said it had to do with the “culture we’ve created” by telling young people working is the same as not working, that giving your best is the same as not giving your best; providing they have a party membership card somewhere; and creating a family in Portugal is the same as not creating a family in Portugal, then “we are doing a disservice not only to us but to the future”.

It is a sentiment that for various reasons has gained currency in Portugal in recent years, particularly since the pandemic, when successive rounds of inflation, precarious contracts, low wages, the impossibility for the young to get onto the housing ladder, and the spiralling cost of living have all created a disgruntled class of people, particularly the young aged 18-39 (Chega’s core supporters) who cannot find a well paid jobs in their own country, and are forced to emigrate; low-salaried people living in the interior of Portugal with few job prospects, and impoverished pensioners whose life savings have dwindled after two decades of low interest rates, and more recent sky-high living costs.

All of these factors have proved fertile ground for a populist party like Chega in a country in which the population is fed up with consensus politics, the endless political scandals, and a perception, rightly or wrongly, that the traditional bi-party political system is inherently corrupt, morally bankrupt, and constrained by fiscal and monetary responsibilities imposed by the European Union, offering no way out of this current dilemma, as these Chega supporters see it.

The results of this financially, patrimonially and contractually disenfranchised mass is clear to see. In the elections of 2022 his party, which currently has 12 deputies, became the third largest political force in Portugal. In 2021 it had 40,000 party members, a number which significantly grew by 40% in 2023.

In his speech on the ‘The Reorganisation of the Right and the Creation of an Alternative to Socialism’ the lawyer said that Portugal’s current socialist model was a model of continuity which was why the choice of party in the March 10 elections had never been so relevant because it was a choice of two models of civilisation.

One which focused on fattening the size and intervention of the State and a nanny state dependency, on a culture of zombie companies subsidised and dependent on the State, rather than an open and free economy, essentially based on private investment, growth in private employment, with a strong regulating and controlling state.

High taxes

Moving to taxes, the Chega leader said: “Portugal has one of the least competitive tax burdens (in Europe). Everyone knows it. Portugal does not attract (direct foreign investment) because it is not tax competitive”. But on the other hand, he understood that the government needed heavy taxes to sustain municipal councils, parish councils, and clienteles and subsidies. The money had to come from somewhere, and so the (tax) model could only be one: “levy to redistribute” and this had to end.

If it didn’t, Portugal, he warned, would become a country awash with local and municipal councils and intermediary public funded entities, but one with no wealth creation, competitiveness, or productivity and in this “we are much closer to being like Venezuela than the United States”. (*I am not sure a country which has a ridiculously expensive private health system, a poor national education system, frequent mass shootings on university campuses, an out-of-control prescription drugs and fentanyl problem, and people, often the former middle classes, living in motels and trailer parks, is an example Mr. Ventura should be holding up as a candle of inspiration!)

Red tape

The Chega leader then moved on to the question of Portugal’s perennial problem of bureaucracy, but lapsed back to taxes at the event which took place at the Marriott Hotel, and which was well attended by party members of the largely ‘protest’ party created as an alternative to the traditional centre parties status quo of centre-right PSD and centre left PS which have dominated Portuguese politics since April 25, 21974.

André Ventura pointed to a 2022 world competitiveness ranking with Portugal almost at the bottom in terms of being bureaucratic.

“It is not good, when investors are asked what Portugal has to offer that the answer is ‘insecurity’. “We have taxes that change from year-to-year, including VAT, IRS and IUC vehicle tax, which for environmental and ecological reasons was put up” – albeit in a phased way – for old vehicles issued before 2007 and then scrapped after a public outcry.

“In this country investors today don’t know what their tax rates will be tomorrow, which has made this country useless for investment, because investment would mean more jobs, more independence, more State freedom, and more independence from the State”, he added.

Instead, André Ventura said that over the past 15 years the governing PS party had created more state, more dependence, and more dependence of companies on the State. “The best economies in the world survive, thrive, multiply and grow when their entrepreneurs, workers, staff, and investment networks can proudly say: ‘I am independent of the State.”

“The only objective for a government should be to allow entrepreneurs to be the best in their areas to generate value for their country, and that’s what we should have in Portugal,” he affirmed.

A convergence of the right

André Ventura then discussed the right-wing parties in Portugal. “If I was an absolutely anonymous and independent citizen with no political affiliation, I would look at the situation and wonder who would win and who wouldn’t”.

“There are two majorities that can take shape: one is the PS with its usual partners (Bloco de Esquerda and PCP communist party) with Livre and Pan (two minor parties in the Portuguese parliament), and the other made up of PSD and Chega.

“Every day on the TV and radio there are debates as to whether the PSD should strike a deal or not with Chega, and this is bad for the country, because while we’re discussing this, the PSD has an open road to make promises and has two appendages to the left to govern when it needs to, and this gives the voter the idea that it has to be with the left because the right can’t get on”, said Ventura.

However, he pointed out that all studies had shown that Chega had grown as a party on its own accord rather than allied or in convergence with any other party. I am a patriot and we have no time to lose. I want to see conditions where the right has a majority convergence to govern the country, and provide a stable economic, fiscal, and entrepreneurial climate for the next few years. If we don’t do this, we are giving them (the PS) a green light govern for another four years,” he said.

“I have friends who say: ‘let them govern, let them bring everything down and then we’ll govern”. But I am a patriot and I don’t want to see the country go down the pan”. (As it did in the troika years between 2011-2014).

Instead, André Ventura called for convergence and a political coalition with the right, offering a plan to govern despite the divergencies the right-wing parties might have, rather like the Italian far-right party Brothers of Italy and its leader Giorgia Meloni, which was the first since 2008 to be formed by a coalition of right-wing parties after having fought the election together.

“To be quite frank, the time of absolute majorities is over all over Europe where there needs to be tolerance, convergence, and the capacity for better organisation”.

And in a dig at the new Socialist Party leader fighting the election who he dubbed “the boy in the polar neck sweater” in a reference to the fact that he came from a wealthy background, he called Pedro Nuno Santos “a dreadful manager, a complete incompetent”, who could end up running the “worst country we have had for many years.”

So that, in essence, was the delivery from the leader of Chega on a PS party which, despite all of its faults, did a least tackle the government deficit and steer the country through the economic and health crisis of the past three years, leaving it in a relatively stable shape compared to, let’s say, the UK Conservative government which veered from crisis to crisis and ran that country like a troupe of clowns.

On a personal note, I was sat at a table stocked with Chega party supporters: they were polite, friendly and of all ages. But is the reason that Portugal’s national health system is creaking at the seams, with unbearable waiting times, really because hospital casualty departments are packed full of gipsy families and Bangladeshis clogging up the system who have contributed nothing towards society in terms of social security payments or income tax?

I for one, who suffer from a myriad of health problems caused by chronic kidney disease, have found Portugal’s public health system fast, efficient and friendly. I have never, on the day of an appointment, had to wait more than 10 minutes to be seen, while I am contacted at least twice a year by my family GP to check in on me and see if there is anything I need, and that is in addition to twice yearly scheduled appointments. I have never seen outpatients or casualty teaming with tax dodging or illegal overseas communities. Perhaps I need stronger glasses.

André Ventura, who is from Lisbon, is certainly an affable, charismatic and charming man, cosmopolitan, polite and approachable, with a warm handshake. He is also an excellent speaker and seems to have a remarkable intuition to be able to voice and tap into the fears, prejudices, hopes, and dissatisfactions — rational, emotional or otherwise — of certain sectors of the Portuguese electorate.

But are the problems he highlights really as simple and black and white as he paints them, and are they equally really that easy to solve? History teaches us that radical solutions rarely work in the long term, tend to scapegoat, and run out of money, support and steam.

He certainly seems to be a passionate conviction politician, of the Margaret Thatcher mould, and he clearly loves his country and believes in his people if not its political class, and sincerely wants to do something to make his country better. On this I have no doubt. But if he gets into power one day, can he be just, fair and magnanimous and understand that we live in a complex world, with many shades of grey?

And what of his economic policies? We all know Portugal’s tax burden is high and wages are low. But putting up wages too much would price Portugal out of the competitive international market, while cutting taxes too much would put at risk the entire post-1974 national health and welfare system, and throw Portugal back to days not seen since Salazar when an overwhelming proportion of the population was poor and uneducated. And Salazar had colonies to exploit, which largely paid for his splendid isolation – Portugal today does not. Young to middle age people born post-1974 don’t quite understand that.

Last, and on a positive note, the Chega leader also praised the International Club of Portugal (ICPT) and its founder, Manuel Ramalho because the club was “fundamental for Portugal to have a serious working democracy” because of its pluralism, independence, and giving a voice to those who don’t always have one but have a vision for Portugal.”

“We need more forums like this one, in which — political parties aside — can give us a view of Portugal”, said André Ventura.

(Essential Business looks forward to the day when it finally invites the leader of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda, Mariana Mortagua, to address this illustrious, pluralist club)