It’s quite a paradoxical situation that Portugal is experiencing right now: On the one hand, the socialists around António Costa are clinching an election victory that makes other social democrats in Europe jealous: an absolute majority with almost 42 percent of the votes, 117 of 230 seats in parliament – and that despite the pandemic and crisis. And yet, with this election, Portugal moves a bit to the right.
The result has two big winners, Costa on the one hand and Chega’s right-wing populists on the other. After this Sunday, no party has recorded such large gains as the right-wing formation, whose name means “enough” in German. From the previous one member of parliament, the party founder André Ventura, the parliamentary group will increase to twelve seats in the future. Ventura has achieved its goal, making Chega the third strongest party after the conservative PSD with 71 seats.
Chega got seven percent of the votes, an astonishing result in Portugal, where the electoral system traditionally favors the two mainstream parties. Over in Spain, the right-wing Vox received even more votes in the last election in 2019, but Vox became so strong mainly because of the Catalonia conflict, staging itself as the guardian of Spanish unity. There is no such open conflict in Portugal that could have helped Chega.
Chega serves stereotypes about minorities
Instead, the political scientist Marina Costa Lobo from the University of Lisbon suspects that many of those who voted for the formation were protest voters. “Chega’s election program only had a few pages,” she says. The party has no concrete goals or stringent demands. Chega was a one-man protest show created by lawyer and former sports commentator André Ventura. Now the party was collecting votes, especially in the larger cities. Where the gap between low income and the high cost of living is most painful.
Chega boss Ventura offers some dissatisfied people a projection screen: the right-wing populist repeatedly launches attacks against minorities such as the Roma, who, in his portrayal, live on social benefits and at the expense of the general public. There are common stereotypes that Chega serves there. Portugal, which only became democratic in the mid-1970s and has since appeared immune to right-wing ideas, shows with this election that it is not. This is one of the reasons why Costa now urgently needs success in overcoming Portugal’s structural problems.
Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, the minimum wage is barely half that in Germany and the average income of the Portuguese is below average. Another problem is the increasing aging of society: for thirteen years in a row, more people have been dying in Portugal than are being born.
Rui Rio, the conservative PSD’s lead candidate, had promised to tackle these problems. For a while it looked like he could overtake Costa. In the end, however, Rio received only 29 percent of the votes. He has already offered his resignation as party leader. The conservatives lost voters to the small liberal party Iniciativa Liberal, but above all to Chega, which apparently also attracted protest voters from the far left.
The majority voted pragmatically
Portugal’s Marxist left-wing bloc and the CDU party alliance, consisting of communists and greens, supported Costa’s socialist minority government in the last legislative period. Many voters have not forgiven them for the fact that their refusal to approve the budget for 2022 caused the government to collapse.
Many of those who voted for left winger in 2019 this time voted for António Costa, the center man. The two left-wing formations have shrunk from 31 MPs to only 11 in the future. A low blow, especially for Portugal’s traditional communists, who had survived four decades of underground dictatorship of the Estado Novo and hoped to the last to become a “decisive force” in Portugal again. That’s what it said on their election poster, which they hung directly opposite the socialist party headquarters on Rato Square in Lisbon.
But the majority of Portuguese voted pragmatically this Sunday: António Costa advertised in the election campaign that he was crisis-tested. For the European partners, his victory means above all reliability. There was great concern that a change of government could mean an end to budgetary discipline. In his first four years in office, Costa managed to reduce the deficit of 4.4 percent in 2015 to such an extent that Portugal achieved a balanced budget.
The Portuguese, almost a tenth of whom live in other EU countries, also voted for Europe this Sunday: With a turnout of 58 percent, which has risen to the level ten years ago for the first time, they gave the order to form a government the candidate who knows that Brussels is by his side.