A time for soul searching – Why Chega became Portugal’s third political force in Portugal

 In 2024 General Election, American Club of Lisbon, News

If you want to understand Portugal you have to do two things: read the novels of 19th century wrier Eça de Queiroz, and carry out refurbishment works on your home and experience the nightmare of the bureaucracy you’ll face.

Text: Chris Graeme; Photos: Joaquim Morgado (ACL)

Eça de Queiroz once wrote: “Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.” The writer’s other classic quote was: “In this country everything is imported but with a long delay.”

In other words, trends and ideas, including political ones, are imported from other countries, but take several years to catch on in Portugal. In this sense, the rise of Chega since 2019 to become the third political force in the country in opposition to the established two-party system dominated by the centre-left PS and conservative PSD parties is illustrative of this trend, which in the rest of Europe happened a decade ago, but has only taken place here since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“What we’re seeing now in Portugal with the far-right populist party Chega is what has been seen in many other European countries”, explained Joaquim Miranda Sarmento, the centre-right PSD party chief whip in the Portuguese parliament.

Sarmento made his observation at a dinner organised by the American Club of Lisbon on March 14 at the prestigious Lisbon debating and supper club Grémio Literário to discuss the outcome of the March 10 general election in Portugal.

The problem of low salaries

The specific situation in Portugal, unlike what has happened with the rise of the far right in other European countries, such as France or the US, is that salaries have always been low in Portugal and with the cost of living crisis and high inflation and interest rates, swathes of the Portuguese electorate are struggling and feeling left behind.

The situation was not like in the US Midwest ‘rust belt’ states where once well-paid industrial and car manufacturing workers lives were blighted and stagnated through unemployment because American industry off-shored to the Far East.

Citing the Stomper-Samuelson theory, now often criticised as “dead” because following trade liberalisation in some developing countries (particularly in Latin America), wage inequality actually rose rather than follow the theory’s assumption that wage inequality in these countries, because they are labour-abundant, should have fallen, Globalisation had not improved incomes in developing countries, while the wages of the working and lower middle class in advanced economies, including Portugal, have remained the same.

“In Portugal the economy has been stagnant for the past 25 years, nevertheless salaries were always low because of low productivity and capital investment”, said Sarmento who advised President Cavaco Silva during his mid-2000s terms in office.

At that time, he explained, most of the protest voters against the bi-party system were mostly from the far-left and communist parties, like the Bloco de Esquerda and the PCP (communists), but in 2015 they formed a coalition or ‘gerinconça’ (jalopy) with the PS party that won the election, but didn’t have a majority in parliament to govern alone, and so these parties formed a coalition supporting the PS government of António Costa making them effectively mainstream, rather than protest parties of the left.

It is these votes, particularly in the Alentejo and Algarve that migrated to Chega in this election – around 700,000 that are protest voters and former abstentionists (dropping from 48% to below 35%) rather than the core 500,000 Chega voters who actually believe in that party’s political platform.

Corruption and immigration

The voters, he remarks, are low-income voters with low levels of education who are angry with what they think is a corrupt system (in most cases unfair or not true), and think that everyone who goes into politics are feathering their own nests by taking bribes or become rich illicitly.

Second, Chega garnered votes from those whose salaries have remained low for 25 years and have stagnated, and with this the perception that those who were young in the 1990s expected to have better lives than their parents, and this has not been the case. It is these voters who are disappointed and don’t see a future in Portugal.

Third, the sharp deterioration in public services and authority, as well as the perception of immigration.

“In some areas of the country people are experiencing immigration, and think these immigrants will not only take their jobs (in fact they do the jobs that the Portuguese don’t want to do) and feel insecure, and think that it is not normal to walk in the streets in an Alentejo city like Beja in the evening and see mostly immigrants”, explains Sarmento.

“We have to understand how they feel even though we need to regulate immigration because parts of the economy (agriculture and tourism, for example) could not operate without them.”

But how is the new minority AD (Democratic Alliance) party made up of the PSD, CDS-PP and monarchist PPM parties going to govern and deal with Chega?

Sarmento says that both traditional parties will have some soul searching to do as to why they failed the electorate over the past decade or so.

“Both of the main traditional parties need to cooperate in order to stem the rise of Chega, but in terms of governing for the next few years, the minority government will have to do whatever minority governments have done in Portugal over the last 50 years by negotiating with the other political parties over policies, for example, such as a maximum tax rate of 15% for young people under 35 or pay increases for the police, armed services, or teachers.

A crisis of democracy

Seasoned journalist and author Henrique Monteiro believes that Chega became the third political force in the country because the electorate was tired of hearing promises from the existing two main parties; the socialist PS and conservative PSD; that were consistently never delivered.

Promises that included changes to the electoral system, improving the Portuguese national health system, the lack of affordable housing and education.

“People don’t believe in democracy anymore in the same way they did 30 years ago; not just in Portugal, but in Europe and other parts of the world in general. They think that perhaps democracy is not the best model for them as they want problems solved, but populists like Chega or Vox in Spain have very simple solutions to problems that are complicated and not easy to solve,” he pointed out

“I do not believe that there are around 1,100,000 voters in Portugal, who voted for populist Chega, who are xenophobic, racist, and misogynist”, said Alexandra Leitão, a PS party MP.

“I think there were two reasons why people voted for Chega. First, a vote of protest against the two main parties that built the democratic system in Portugal (PS and PSD) and they now need to reflect on the reasons voters turned their back on them and voted Chega”.

The MP points out that many Chega votes came from people who had abstained for years because those monitoring the voting tables had noticed people who hadn’t voted for years were suddenly voting.

The second reason had to do with expectations. In other words it was not about democracy per say, but about what people thought democracy should give them. A superficial reason; and here this affected young people; was the use of social media and Tik-Tok providing 30-second soundbites with simple messages for complicated problems and issues that Chega was able to tap into.

“These are people who feel forgotten by globalisation, that the world changed too quickly and have been left out,” she remarked adding that this was a Europe-wide phenomena.

And added: “For 50 years there were two large parties that alternated in power (PSD and PS) both democratic, and both operating within the constitutional framework. My deepest fear is something like what had happened in France could happen in Portugal, where one of the main parties disappears and the alternative is a democratic party vying with a far-right racist and xenophobic party, reducing viable alternatives”.

Interestingly enough, in the first major TV interview given by Chega leader, André Ventura on CNN Portugal he said that he agreed with many of the policies of the AD and would be happy to support the government on issues such as lowering IRC, the repositioning of teachers salaries, and contributing to giving a stable government in Portugal. “No one wants another election in a few months. We don’t make biased distinctions between the source of the policies and the policies themselves, and I don’t understand a political system when parties vote against Chega and won’t work with us even when they often agree with the policies, simply because we’re Chega rather than because of the policy where very often we are in agreement.”

One thing is certain, the fact that the media and TV, as well as the other political parties, constantly give Chega more air time and discussion than any other party will have the opposite effect to the one desired by the traditional mainstream parties, adding more fuel to the fire of debate and stoking up even more visibility for the populist party as pointed out in the question time by Anne Taylor, the executive director of the American Club of Lisbon. Whether ignoring a controversial party and its leader is democratic or fair — and Chega insists it is a democratic party — is another question.

The mechanism of the Portuguese election system

Portugal has a proportional representation electoral system with a method that turns votes into seats in the 230-seat Portuguese parliament known as the Assembly of the Republic. The system favours the large parties. Although the system produces some fragmentation, and can hinder government stability, it is not as fragmented as other political parliaments in other countries.

Unlike the first-past-the-post system in the UK, for example, where winner takes all, the Portuguese system allows small parties to have some parliamentary representation, while generally also providing some stability. However, the March 10, 2024, election was an exception to that rule.

Portugal has a semi-presidential system, and very different from the French system. The president of the Republic is voted for by direct universal suffrage, whereas the government party or coalition that has secured the most seats in parliament forms the government and its leader becomes the prime minister.

If a government has an absolute majority, the system can be dubbed as the ‘presidency of the prime minister’ since that prime minister becomes the centre of power. If the prime minister and his/her government do not have an absolute majority, as is the case now, then the power is more widely distributed, changing the system’s behaviour when there is not an absolute majority.

The role of the president

Portugal’s president lies somewhere between the King of England (With soft powers with the ability to advise, warn, and encourage, as well as be consulted by and technically dismiss a prime minister, although only once used in the reign of William IV. (1830-1837), and the US president.

The Portuguese president has two main powers. 1) The president can veto laws. However, if he vetoes a law from the parliament, but parliament approves the law again, he cannot veto a second time. 2) Dissolve parliament. The president can, at any time, with well-grounded reasons, dissolve parliament and order fresh elections, except in the first six months period after an election or the last six months period before his own term ends.

However, because they are elected directly by the people, that gives them a very individual or personal power. In practise this means that the president has more power than the constitution provides in terms of political legitimacy and affirmation that no other politician in Portugal has because they are directly voted for by the people.

Note about the speakers:

Alexandra Leitão: a member of the Portuguese parliament representing Santarém, served as assistant secretary of Sate for Education and from 2019-2022 was minister for the modernisation of the State Public Administration.

Joaquim Miranda Sarmento: a professor of finance, chief economic advisor to the president of Portugal, Ánibal Cavaco Silva (2012-2016) and spent 10 years at the Portuguese ministry of Finance and today heads the parliamentary group of the PSD party.

Journalist Henrique Monteiro: a former war correspondent in Africa, he joined Expresso in 1989 and sat on its board in 1995. Monteiro was editor from 2005-2011, and has published six books, two chronicles, three novels, and one book on the most important political speeches in humanity.

Moderator: Patrick Siegler-Lathrop: President of the ACL and author of the book on the US electoral system ‘RENDEZ-VOUS WITH AMERICA – An Explanation of the US Election System’.