Friday, May 24, 2024

Portugal’s far-right Chega party eyes kingmaker role as country goes to polls

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The Portuguese left and right are braced for a tight race as the country votes in its second snap general election in three years, a closely fought contest that is also expected to result in huge gains and a possible kingmaker role for the far-right Chega party.

Sunday’s election was triggered by the collapse of the socialist government of António Costa, who resigned as prime minister in November amid an investigation of alleged illegalities in his administration’s handling of large green investment projects.

Costa – who had been in office since 2015 and who won a surprise absolute majority in the 2022 general election – has not been accused of any crime. He said he felt he had no choice but to resign because “the duties of prime minister are not compatible with any suspicion of my integrity”.

Voting began at 8am on Sunday and most ballot results were expected within hours of polling stations closing at 8pm. Voter turnout had reached 25.2% by midday, up from 23.3% at the same point during the last election.

The prime minister, António Costa, casts his vote in Lisbon on Sunday. Photograph: Carlos M Almeida/EPA

Polls suggest the election will be a close-run affair, with only a few percentage points between the centre-right Democratic Alliance – an electoral platform made up of the large Social Democratic party (PSD) and two smaller conservative parties – and the Socialist party (PS).

A survey published on Friday, the final day of campaigning, put the Democratic Alliance on 34% and the socialists on 28%. But the poll, for the Público newspaper and the public broadcaster RTP, also suggested that socialists and other, smaller leftwing and communist parties could pull in enough votes collectively to outweigh those of the right bloc.

Much will depend on Chega, the populist, far-right party founded five years ago by André Ventura, a former TV football pundit who was once a rising star in the PSD. After winning 1.3% of the vote in the 2019 elections and 7.2% in 2022, Chega is expected to enjoy a huge surge in support on Sunday, taking between 15% and 20% of the vote.

Although the PSD’s leader, Luís Montenegro, has ruled out any deals with Chega because of what he has termed Ventura’s “often xenophobic, racist, populist and excessively demagogic” views, he is likely to come under considerable pressure from his own party if Chega’s help is needed to stop the left returning to power.

According to the Expresso newspaper, Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has broken with the convention of presidential neutrality by saying he will do everything possible to prevent Chega from reaching office, including rejecting any moves to replace Montenegro as prime minister should the right win a majority.

Even with the backing of the smaller centre-right Liberal Initiative, any potential minority government led by the Democratic Alliance would probably still have to rely on Chega’s support to pass legislation, leaving its stability in the hands of the far-right party.

Ventura hit back at the president’s reported comments, saying: “In Portugal, it’s not the president of the republic who chooses the government – it’s the voters.”

A woman votes at a polling station in Lisbon. Polls suggest the election will be a close-run affair. Photograph: Armando França/AP

Chega is seeking to capitalise on widespread dissatisfaction with Portugal’s mainstream left and right parties as the country continues to suffer a housing crisis, squeezed public services, low wages, and a string of corruption scandals affecting the PS and the PSD.

“Never in the history of Portugal has there been a greater possibility of overthrowing the bipartisan system that has been killing us for the past 50 years,” Ventura told supporters at a Chega rally in northern Portugal last week. “We have never been this close.”

As he queued to vote in the northern city of Espinho on Sunday morning, Diamantino Vieira, 86, told Reuters: “I hope life gets better than what it is now.”

Bernardo Guerra, a 28-year-old personal trainer who had just voted in central Lisbon, told Agence France-Presse that things had got worse and a change was in order.

“In Portugal there is a lot of corruption, Portugal has a bad image abroad,” he said. “I hope a new government improves this situation.”

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Chega’s president, André Ventura, is predicting historic results for his far-right party. Photograph: Antonio Cotrim/EPA

Pedro Magalhães, a political scientist at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, said the Socialists had a battle on their hands.

“Although the economic situation has become relatively favourable – regarding GDP growth, unemployment, and the country’s budgetary health – government approval has declined steeply since the last election, from more than 60% to about 25%,” he said. “This seems to be connected with the rising costs of living experienced in the last two years, especially in housing in metropolitan areas, and with faltering performance in public education and the NHS.”

Magalhães said that while support for the Democratic Alliance had increased because of voter dissatisfaction, “its growth as the main alternative to the Socialists is constrained by the rise of the radical right represented by Chega”.

But he also stressed that many voters were still undecided and much remained uncertain, noting that “about one out of every five poll respondents claims to be undecided about what to do this Sunday, and even among those who declare a voting intention, a sizeable minority states they can still change”.

André Azevedo Alves, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Portugal and St Mary’s University, London, said much would hang on the Socialists’ ability to again rally voters amid the prospect of an electoral breakthrough for the far right.

“In 2022, the threat of Chega mobilised some voters in the centre to vote for the Socialist party – and some on the radical and far left, which got historically low results – to change their vote to the Socialist party almost at the last moment,” he said.

“Will it work again? I think the conditions for it to work are worse – you’ve had two additional years, with an absolute majority, that have been an absolute mess.

“The Socialist party had the best conditions to govern and they weren’t even able to organise themselves internally and you had junior and senior ministers quitting almost every month because of all sorts of scandals. And ultimately, you had the prime minister quitting.”

Azevedo Alves also pointed out that the absence of Costa on the ballot could hurt the Socialists. He said Costa’s replacement, Pedro Nuno Santos, – who resigned as infrastructure minister in late 2022 over a scandal around a large severance payout by the state-owned airline TAP – lacked the broad appeal of his predecessor.

“Another factor is that you don’t have Costa running and Costa is vastly more popular than Pedro Nuno Santos,” he said. “Pedro Nuno Santos is on the left wing of the Socialist party, while Costa was clearly a moderate and more consensual figure.”

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