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  • André de Botton

2024 Portuguese Elections: A Rickety Swing to the Right

The fall from grace of the Socialist Party (PS) and the emergence of the far-right Chega party as a major political force leaves Portugal with an unstable government in which ordinary citizens will lose out the most.

But it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following the landslide victory of  PS in 2022, under the leadership of António Costa, winning 120 out of 230 seats, many expected his government to be marked by a stable, one-party majority rule which would remedy the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic on the tourism-dependent Portuguese economy. The reality was anything but. Corruption scandals plagued Costa’s premiership. In less than two years, 12 Secretaries of State and 3 ministers had resigned. In November 2023, when it was discovered Costa´s Chief of Staff had hidden €75,800 in cash in his office, Costa had no choice but to resign. 

Therefore, when the Portuguese Assembly was dissolved in late November, after 8 years of socialist rule, the political momentum in the upcoming election was clearly leaning towards the right. To harness all this momentum, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the main centre-right party in Portugal, formed a strategic partnership with two other small, right-wing parties dubbed the Democratic Alliance (AD). Even still, the results were so close on election night that the winner could only be verified 2 weeks later since the votes of the large Portuguese diaspora could still change the preliminary outcome. 

Yet, the big winner was Chega, a far-right party formed in 2019, which managed to secure 50 seats or 20% of the total votes. Led by André Ventura, Chega served as an anti-establishment platform for a vote of protest against the quasi-two-party system established by the 50-year alternating rule of PS and PSD. Similar to other European far-right parties, Chega resorts to populist and divisive rhetoric as well as xenophobic scapegoating, and has selected deputies with questionable criminal records and qualifications, even as its main agenda is to “end corruption”. Indeed, Chega´s rise and the political polarisation that characterised this election served as a stark reminder of the fragility of Portugal’s democratic norms and institutions. 

2024 marks 50 years since the Carnation Revolution, which deposed a Francoist right-wing dictatorship and ushered in a new era of democracy and civil liberties in Portugal. The real tragedy of this election is that for all the struggles for democratic freedom the Portuguese people endured, their descendants willingly voted to have 50 voices in parliament that wished to replicate the political ideas they fought so arduously against.

With Chega´s results, even though AD won by a narrow margin, with 80 seats to PS´s 78, they have little hope of forming a stable coalition of the more than 115 deputies necessary to rule as a majority government. Since Luis Montenegro, Secretary General of PSD and current prime minister, refuses to form a right-wing coalition with a populist party like Chega, AD will be forced to rule as a minority government with all its negative implications. 

The biggest losers in this election were undoubtedly the Portuguese people. This makeshift political solution, which both PS and Chega have vowed not to present a censure motion against (which if approved by a majority would mean the automatic dismissal of the government) means AD will have to pass laws through bipartisanship in an increasingly uncollaborative legislature. 

More importantly, to approve the 2025 state budget in November, AD needs a majority of 116 deputies to vote for it. Without the approval, the President would certainly dismiss the government and call for new legislative elections. Luis Montenegro and AD are stuck between a rock, in partnering up with their ideological opposites PS, and a hard place, going back on their word and partnering up with the populist Chega. With this scenario in mind, the majority of political pundits foresee new elections in early next year.

Within all this complex political strategising, it is easy to lose sight of what matters most. That is the Portuguese people and their discontentment with the current political status quo. It was mostly the devastating lack of faith in politics which led to Chega´s rise, so by engaging with voters on substantive issues and offering viable alternatives to Chega's brand of populism, mainstream parties can counter its appeal and reaffirm the resilience of Portuguese democracy. 

Nevertheless, the first executive act of the new government showed little sign of substantial progress and instead focused on the superficial changes Portuguese people are tired of. The first act of AD, after 8 years in opposition, was to change the official government logo back to the Portuguese coat of arms. Akin to the new logo, Portuguese politics has just experienced a superficial rebranding of the same old status quo.

Image: Luís Montenegro Reinaldo Rodrigues | Global Imagens


1 Comment

Apr 10

Brilliant article; congratulations!

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