The 2021 Portuguese elections: a showdown between democracy and demagoguery

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Teresa Carvalho
Teresa Carvalho

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

In a few days, the new Portuguese president will be announced. Although there is little doubt Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will be re-elected, this election is going to shape the future of Portuguese politics in a way that has not been seen since the end of the dictatorship in 1974.

The real battle being fought in this election is between the left, headed by the fierce pro-democracy socialist Ana Gomes, and a growing Far Right represented by André Ventura’s brand of Trump-like populism. While these two candidates are ‘merely’ vying for second place, they perfectly capture the current political climate in the country.

In 2015, a minority government was formed by the Socialist Party, in coalition with the three most left-leaning parties in Parliament. This was a historic moment for the country. At a time when the Far Right was rising across the continent, Portugal seemed to be bucking the trend.

However, this ‘Portuguese exception’ proved to be short-lived. Despite the coalition’s success, leading to the re-election of the Socialist party in 2019, it also committed its fair share of mistakes. The growing divide amongst the Portuguese electorate was the perfect storm for Chega! (Enough! in English) to rise in – a nationalist and Far Right party whose president André Ventura won a seat in Parliament in 2019.

Unfortunately, while he has shown a remarkable ability to unify a sector of the population, his opposition has, for the most part, failed to do so

Ventura is a daily presence in the media, where his outlandish statements, resembling those of (former) US President Trump, claim anti-fascist forces suffer from intellectual disabilities and spread hateful speech. Growing numbers of Portuguese look to him as a ‘man of the people’ and someone that ‘speaks truth to power’ despite incessant proof that Ventura has regularly gone back on his word and benefits from what he calls a ‘corrupt system’.

He rose to power by tapping into growing resentment against the seemingly unchecked power of the ‘Far Left’ government, leveraging the lack of a strong opposition, and marketing his party as an anti-system and anti-corruption movement.

Unfortunately, while he has shown a remarkable ability to unify a sector of the population, his opposition has, for the most part, failed to do so.

Yet a quick glance at social media shows that a large portion of the population actually rejects much of Ventura’s narrative. However, without the backing of an equally strong opposition, there isn’t much to stem his tide.

Only by unifying the left-voting electorate can they present a viable alternative to Chega!

The Portuguese Parliament has a vast number of parties representing the left but their fragmentation and disagreement over small issues has fractured the electorate. They must band together to fight against their common foe, instead of pointing fingers and refusing to fight together against this looming threat. Only by unifying the left-voting electorate can they present a viable alternative to Chega!.

One show of strength worth noting on the left is the candidacy of Ana Gomes for president, a member of the Socialist party, former MEP, and Ventura’s strongest challenger in the debates. She is running a campaign that stands for democracy and fairness in a country whose politics are a tangled web of corruption and finger-pointing, neglecting the dangerous rise of the Far Right.

Whilst Portugal’s presidential election is often seen as more symbolic, Prime Minister António Costa’s decision to withhold support for fellow socialist Gomes in favour of the current President is a mistake that may cost the parties’ lead down the line. Costa has also frustratingly remained mostly silent about the rise of Ventura’s Far Right movement – which is concerning for the future of the country.

Ventura is using this opportunity to enlarge his audience for future elections, given that the Portuguese local elections will happen later this year, where 308 Portuguese municipalities will vote for a Mayor in this fragmented climate.

As Portugal takes over the European Council Presidency, the eyes of the EU and its member will be looking closer than ever at the outcome of this election

Furthermore, while Rebelo de Sousa is all but guaranteed the election, he will not be able to run again, which leaves a big gap as to who can replace him five years from now. And what will happen in these coming years is far more important than figuring out his replacement – thus the importance in uniting the left and fighting against the threat Ventura represents.

As Portugal takes over the European Council Presidency, the eyes of the EU and its member will be looking closer than ever at the outcome of this election.  Despite Portugal’s size and clout within the European Union opening the floodgates for a possible Chega! win in any election will endanger the future of the bloc.

One can only hope this will serve as a necessary wake up call for the current government and the large amount of left-wing parties represented in Parliament to band together to avoid destroying a democracy that was only obtained 47 years ago.

The country must reject a second authoritarian regime, led by someone who believes cutting off the hands of criminals is a deserving punishment.

Insights

view all insights

Next Event

view all events
Track title

Category

00:0000:00
Stop playback
Video title

Category

Close

We use cookies to improve your online experience.
For more information, visit our privacy policy

Africa initiative logo

Dismiss