Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Portugal’s far right on rise as election campaign begins

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Portugal’s two-week general election campaign has officially begun with centre-right and centre-left parties leading in the polls, but a far-right populist forecast to collect almost a fifth of the vote is a further sign of Europe’s nativist drift.

Chega (Enough), led by 41-year-old former football commentator André Ventura, could become kingmaker if the polls prove accurate. His party scored 1.3% of votes in 2019’s election but jumped to 7.3% in 2022 and has since climbed to about 19%.

Luís Montenegro, leader of the conservative Social Democratic party (PSD), launched his campaign in the northern district of Bragança, saying he was confident of a “great victory” for the three-party alliance he has formed with two smaller rightist parties.

Pedro Nuno Santos, leader of the incumbent Socialist party, told shoppers at a market outside Porto that his party enjoyed “a relationship of proximity and trust” with voters and was “focused on a victory that halts the right’s advance”.

However, with the Socialists favourites to win the most votes but combined rightwing parties expected to end up with more seats in parliament, many observers’ eyes were on Ventura – who has long said he will he will not back a rightist coalition unless he is formally a part of it.

Unlike in several EU member states from Finland to Italy, the far right has so far failed to make much impact in Portugal, which in April celebrates half a century since its 1974 Carnation Revolution ended almost as many years of authoritarian rule.

But the early 10 March election, called after the surprise resignation of Socialist prime minister, António Costa, is being held in the shadow of multiple corruption scandals that have fuelled voter disenchantment and favour the far right, analysts say.

Costa’s government collapsed last November amid a corruption investigation that led to a police search of his official residence and the environment and infrastructure ministries, as well as the arrest of his chief of staff. He is not accused of any crime.

In recent weeks, a Lisbon court has also ruled that a former Socialist prime minister, José Sócrates, should stand trial over allegations that he pocketed about €34m (£29m) during his time in power from graft, fraud and money laundering.

The PSD, which has alternated in power with the Socialists for decades, also faces corruption allegations, with two prominent SDP politicians recently forced to resign amid a graft investigation in Madeira.

A housing crisis, persistent low pay levels and unreliable public health services are other areas where the records of the two main parties – which polls suggest are neck-and-neck on 28% and 29% of the vote – are being challenged.

As elsewhere in Europe, Chega has made the fight against alleged corruption one of its main themes – “Portugal needs cleaning out”, one of its billboards says – while also campaigning on immigration, the climate crisis and religious and cultural differences.

The party supports the death penalty, chemical castration for repeat rapists and wants zero tolerance for illegal immigration. It has also said it wants Portugal to have more freedom from the EU to pursue some bilateral economic ties.

Far-right populists are in ruling coalitions in Italy and Finland and propping up another in Sweden. Austria’s FPÖ is on track to win elections expected this autumn, while Germany’s AfD and France’s National Rally (RN) are at record polling highs.

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In June’s European parliament elections, radical right parties are on course to finish first in nine countries including Austria, France and Poland and second or third in another nine, entailing Germany, Spain, Portugal and Sweden.

Chega party leader, Andre Ventura (centre), aims to be the main force on Portugal’s right. Photograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

Montenegro, the PSD leader, has so far ruled out any coalition including Chega. Some analysts are sceptical, however, that after eight years in opposition the centre-right party will stick to that pledge if it needs Chega’s votes to secure a majority.

Antonio Costa Pinto, a political scientist at Lisbon University’s Institute of Social Sciences, said the “sanitary cordon” around far-right parties “has not worked for other European democracies, and Portugal will be another example”.

Costa’s successor at the head of the Socialist party, Nuno Santos, has said he would not block the formation of a minority government headed by the centre-right should they finish first but without a working majority.

His party would hope, as in the past, to forge parliamentary alliances with the Portuguese Communist party or the Left Bloc to remain in power.

Agence France-Presse and Associated Press contributed to this report

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