Portugal’s abrasive far-right leader tipped for surprise poll gain

Portugal’s abrasive far-right leader tipped for surprise poll gain

January 28, 2022

By Catarina Demony

FARO, Portugal (Reuters) – Standing near the Algarve hotel where Portugal’s growing far-right party hosted a recent dinner, Roma community member Catia Montes trembled at the thought of it securing more power in Sunday’s snap election.

“If the far-right rises, it is not just the Roma who will suffer…all Portuguese will,” said Montes, 35, accusing Andre Ventura, leader of the populist Chega (Enough) party https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/portuguese-snap-election-points-rocky-road-ahead-2022-01-27, of scapegoating her people for political gain.

Established in 2019, Chega stunned the nation when it grabbed 1.3% of the vote in a parliamentary election that year, winning the far-right’s first seat https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/parties-leaders-contesting-portugals-snap-election-2022-01-27 since Portugal’s long dictatorship ended in 1974.

Until then, Portugal’s attachment to its young democracy made it harder for parties such as Chega to establish themselves, but its emergence has signalled an end to the country’s perceived immunity to the far-right.

Opinion polls now show former soccer commentator Ventura at 6-10%, a potential kingmaker in the Jan. 30 parliamentary election if Chega becomes the third largest party.

“Demand from voters for a party like Chega has existed for a long time,” said political scientist Mariana Mendes. “When it comes to political trends, Portugal is always a little behind.”

Across Europe, far-right parties such as Vox in Spain, Rassemblement National in France and the Lega Nord in Italy have gained a foothold by latching onto issues such as euroscepticism, migration, regional identity and high taxes.

Ventura, inspired by the likes of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, presents himself as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption candidate.

‘XENOPHOBIA, NATIONALISM’

Portugal is western Europe’s poorest country and lures far fewer migrants than the likes of Spain or France. But the Roma have drawn Ventura’s focus.

“The target is different but the mechanisms are exactly the same: a mix of xenophobia and nationalism…saying they do not work, they exploit the welfare state,” Mendes said, adding the Roma already experienced widespread ethnic discrimination in Portugal.

In an interview with Reuters, Ventura denied scapegoating and said the country had to face the “problem of the Roma”.

“Not all of them, of course, but a large part lives off state subsidies,” said Ventura, who in 2020 was fined for discriminatory remarks about the community. The group represents 0.5% of the population and just under 4% of the Portuguese residents who receive social integration benefits.

Ventura also criticises the Black community. In 2020 he called for a Black lawmaker to be “returned to her own country”, and at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement organised a demonstration against the idea that racism existed in Portugal.

At a Chega rally in the southern coastal city of Portimao on Tuesday, supporter Larissa Goncalves, a 26-year-old Brazilian-Portuguese, bore a party flag and said she did “not identify with racism” but agreed with some of Ventura’s claims.

“Some work while others sleep…We all have to contribute,” she said.

Migrants in Portugal contributed more than 1 billion euros to social security through taxation in 2020 and received 273 million euros in benefits, according to the public think tank Migration Observatory.

‘MEDIA ATTENTION’

For Mendes, the party’s growth is mainly explained by the “enormous media attention Ventura received” and the way he used social media to reach those feeling disenfranchised.

“I feel in my body the pain of all the issues he talks about, mainly when it comes to corruption,” said Goncalo Santos, a 23-year-old Chega supporter, who used to vote for the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) to which Ventura originally belonged.

Close to 90% of Portuguese believe there is corruption in government, said watchdog Transparency International.

Chega is shaking up the political scene and is well-placed to eventually become an important actor, analysts say.

“For now it will continue to be a one-man show,” Mendes said. “The future depends on the lawmakers he manages to elect.”

Opinion polls suggest neither the Socialists, in government at present, nor the PSD can win a majority in Sunday’s poll.

Speaking to poll aggregator Europe Elects, political scientist Marina Costa Lobo said Chega’s results could make it the PSD’s “inevitable coalition partner”.

Although PSD leader Rui Rio has said Chega was “unreliable”, there is precedent for such an alliance.

In a regional election in the Portuguese archipelago of Azores in 2020, the PSD made an agreement with Chega and two other right-wing parties to govern. Chega made a few policy requests such as an anti-corruption body and the reduction of the number of people who receive social benefits.

“If that happened in the Azores, it could also happen at a national level if the votes are such that (PSD) can only form a government…if they have support from Chega,” Costa Lobo said.

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes in Faro; Additional reporting by Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Aislinn Laing, William Maclean)

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