A reflection on the recent Portuguese parliamentary elections, which led to a loss for the left-wing bloc and to success of moderate and far right 

Tatiana Moutinho, Portuguese housing, feminist and left-wing activist, a permanent collaborator to transform!europe network, joins Cross-Border Talks to explain the results of Portuguese snap parliamentary elections, which came as a surprise to many in Europe. While a social-democratic Socialist Party held a full majority in the previous parliamentary term, it is the right that emerged victorious from the March vote, and a far-right party Chega made a great leap forward.

Tatiana explains the reasons why the left-wing parties lost the society’s trust, while a party who directly hints at ‘cleaning Portugal’ (but also promises a kind of ‘chauvinist welfare’) gains votes. She speaks of major disappointments and social problems, including precariousness and inability to deliver good public services, including education or healthcare, as well as of corruption that marked the social-democratic rule. She also explains why it is extremely hard to make any prognosis about Portugal’s future. Not only the composition of a future government is unclear – it is even hard to imagine what the successful right-wing parties intend to actually do, given how many contradictions are there in their programmes and promises.

Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome to another episode of Cross-border Talks. Today we will turn our attention to Portugal as Portuguese citizens voted in snap parliamentary elections just 14 days ago, and the result comes as a surprise to many. 

Portugal is associated rather with strong left wing parties, at least compared to many other Western European or southern European countries. But this election was a victory to the right. The moderate right comes first, and a far right party comes to the parliament stronger. It seems that 50 years after a peaceful Carnation Revolution that put an end to right wing dictatorship in Portugal, ghosts of that period are coming back, and not only in symbolic meaning.

We are going to have a look at Portugal and on developments in Portuguese politics and society. Together with Tatiana Moutinho, who is a collaborator of transform!europe, who is a left wing activist from Portugal, a housing and feminist activist. Tatiana will help us today to understand what happened and what can happen next. Hello, Tatiana. Thank you for being with us today.

Hello. Thank you for the invitation.

So in my first question, I’d like to come back a little bit. Please tell us: why snap elections? Why did the previous government of Portugal fall and you needed to go vote before time?

In 2022, we already had elections. The Socialist Party, which is a social-democratic party in Portugal, won with a full majority. Normally we will expect a term that would last for years. But on the 7th of November a corruption investigation was taking place. The cabinet of the then Minister of Infrastructure Structures was raided and the mayor house of a small city in the south of Portugal was raided. The chief cabinet of the prime minister was raided. They searched for documentation and a couple of other people. And these investigations had to do with some projects and business regarding green energy, hydrogen and also a big data center that would be built in Sines and it would be the biggest one in Europe.

The news was that when the public prosecutor issued a press release saying that these people were being investigated and in which circumstances this was taking place, there was a last paragraph saying that the Prime Minister was under investigation as well. Immediately, the Prime Minister decided to step down for the sake of protecting the institutional role of the prime minister, as he said. And I think he did the right thing. He could not stay in office if he was being investigated. 

The thing is that ever since then we learned nothing new about the investigation concerning theprime minister. It quite quickly became very evident that the grounds for this investigation were very weak. Probably we had a snap election because of… nothing.

But one thing has been true over these past two years. And this adds to the situation where we reached before 7 November 2023. Almost every single month, there was someone from the government – the state secretary or a minister or someone close – stepping down because of corruption, because of conflicts of interests. So the truth is that this government, ever since it took power, has been overshadowed by corruption or not very transparent affairs. So the Prime Minister had no other possibility other than to resign, and that’s what he did.

Is it only corruption that made the Social Democrats, the Socialist Party, lose the social trust? After all, it happens very rarely that a party which had an absolute majority in the parliament loses not only a leading position in the parliament, but, well, nearly everything. It seems that the Portuguese people switch to the right. So what are other reasons that made the Social Democrats lose people’s trust?

Corruption is an important reason for sure. In this context of scandals and corruption, whatever, this was the ideal scenario for a far right populist party like Chega to appear. They were already represented in the parliament with 12 MPs. But this was a good scenario to go into elections. So corruption is one of the reasons. 

A second reason is that we must not forget that the Socialist Party had been in power ever since 2015. 8 years of rule. Since 2022, when this government has been ruling with the full majority, the economic indicators such as the deficit, public debt and the economic growth have been spectacular. So Portugal ended 2023 with a superavit [surplus], for the first time in the democratic history of the country. But the truth is that there is a compression in salaries. People are not living better. People cannot feel in their own lives and in their pockets these spectacular economic growth.

In Portugal, we have been facing an incredible housing crisis. The national health system, although it did comply and responded during the times of the pandemic, ever since has been in crisis, is not able to adapt. There is a shortage of new doctors and nurses in the public health sector. There is a shortage in staff and urgencies. Emergency services are being closed throughout the country. So this is very problematic on top of it. Teachers also have been striking for two years now in order to reinstate the period of time that they lost in terms of accounting for career progression that was lost during the troika years. So there is a lot of social unrest. And with the cost of living crisis and with inflation, it’s simply impossible that people are living better and feel that they are better. In my personal perspective, the socialists planned to rule for four years of peace. And in Portugal this is typical when a government is more or less sure that they will last throughout the mandate during the first two years there are strict policies, and in the last two years of a mandate the government can provide something to the public and invest somehow in public services and increasing wages, etc. and I think the the play was cut in the middle and in the worst part of the story. So this is what was also, I think, detrimental to them, the way they were ruling.And something unexpected happened. 

Clearly the socialists were not able to retain their own electorate, I think. They lost 40 MPs in the parliament even if they got the full majority back in 2022 by blackmailing the left voters with the fear of a rise on the far right. This time it didn’t work anymore. So they got this full majority on the basis of this threat and left voters also felt a little bit discontent because they didn’t want the far right to rise or at least to rise a lot, but they were not necessarily wanting a full majority of the socialists. So the socialists got into this campaign with very few things they can use to attract their own votes. Of course, the former prime minister also resigned as secretary general of the Socialist Party. And the new one has this problem of being the leader of the incumbent party. He couuld not say: from now on, we will govern completely in a completely different way. He could not break with his legacy. And the refreshments that he was proposing clearly did not attract voters. So this is how the socialists, I think, can explain their own disaster.

Let’s focus now on the party, which is clearly the winner of this election. Could you tell us something about their political profile, who these people are, what are their issues, what are they giving or offering to the society? What is their specific socio economic program, what they offer in social economic terms? Also, could you put put them in the Portuguese and European context, because at least in Portugal, as I understand, this is a new force. This is a new political force which exists since 2019 only.

Okay. You have many questions inside the question. Let me see if I don’t forget to answer any aspect. But if I do, please remind me. 

So it’s true to say the party was founded in 2019. It managed to elect one MP back then. Then in 2022, they already elected 12 MPs, so they raised from 1% to 7.7-7.8%, and now they raised to 18% and 50 MPs. On the year that we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, everything is symbolic here. And it’s really sad. 

As I told you before, we were going into election, with the government that had to step down on the grounds of corruption. The best possible present that you can offer to a party like this. They did not have a hard task in this election and in their campaign. Their motto went as follows: we are going to clean Portugal. We are going to remove the elites that have been in power for 50 years. We are cleaning the country. 

They had very strong stances against migration. It’s very complicated to understand their proposal because they can say one thing, and then the contrary, on the same day. Even sometimes, if they are interviewed in the same interview, they say one thing and then its opposite. Clearly, they understood that  there was this social restlessness, that people were not happy about their lives and their wages. So they were proposing many, I would say, progressive measures. Of course, I don’t think they were honest in their words or that these good moves were genuinely to be implemented. They even proposed, for example, to tax the bank sector profits, which for the past two years were spectacular. They suggested they would increase the minimum retirement pension up to the level of the minimum wage in Portugal. Very attractive measures and measures that could make a progressive economic plan for a left party.

The Chega people were not stupid. For example, in 2019, in their program, they wanted to privatize schools, privatize everything, including the military more or less. Five years later, they moved towards a completely different agenda.

What was the other question?

So the question was how to situate them within the political spectrum in Portugal, because you have a spectrum which was for long divided between two big forces, and now they are like a third force. So how to understand it?

Before these elections there was always either the center-right or the center- left. For sure, this is over, at least for now we have three big blocs in the parliament that came out of this election. 

One is the so-called center-right, which is the center-right coalition that won the elections by 21%, which are the socialists and the liberals. Then we have a far right bloc with the 50 MPs of Chega and 18%. Then I would say a left and center left bloc, which makes up to 92 seats in a parliament of 230. So the Left Bloc with 92 seats is bigger than the center-right bloc, which only has 82 MPs.

Of course, we still don’t have yet studies on the vote transfer during this election, but clearly the far right absorbed voters from the socialists voters, voters from the centre-right, possibly, but very few from left parties, smaller left parties. That’s not a tendency, but it is possible.

But mainly they cut their share of votes from the abstention. In this election, we had the highest turnout since 95. So the turnout was 60%, with more 900,000 people voting, compared to 750,000 before. But now with the Portuguese abroad, it adds up to more 900,000 votes. And the party that most benefited benefited from this turnout is clearly Chega.

What this is telling us is that many people in Portugal are really fed up with what they perceive as being the system, and they turn to this party to vote. We still don’t understand to what extent this vote is a protest vote, meaning a vote that can change either back to abstention or  being transferred towards some other party. But this is a huge sign that people are really tired and fed up with the political scenario they used to have. And I think this is the most important or significant political message that must be drawn from these results, particularly, of course, from a left wing perspective. In my view, for example, two years of full majority of the centre-left without being able to respond to people’s needs and demands this is a textbook scenario for a smaller leftist party such as Bloco or the Communist Party to rise, and they didn’t manage to block or increase by 30,000 votes. They have more or less the same share of voters in 2022. The Bloco kept their five MPs, but the communists, they lost two MPs and they also lost 40,000 votes. So this is what the left should be reflecting on right now and trying to face and face. In the best possible way.

I know it’s difficult to predict, but do you think that the far right will still be within this dynamic which was created now due to the corruption and then winning the legislative election. Do you think that Chega party will be also successful in the European elections, which are coming very soon? What’s your guess here about this?

Yes, that’s one of the questions that everybody is raising. I think it’s possible that they will get a good score. It’s possible even that they will get better because European elections are seen less seriously at the national level. Some people can just make a protest vote there just for the fun of shaking the establishment. This is a possibility, of course. But let’s see, because now they are in Parliament and I’m not sure they will be the best behaved people, not even at my table for a dinner, let alone the parliament. 

Their performance also can dictate some change and not necessarily in their favour. It’s true that the the figure, the role of the leader is very important. And it’s almost always him and 4 or 5 people around him that talk. If all the other 4-5 remain silent, maybe they can manage. But, if they start acting and speaking, maybe they will lose. We don’t know. It’s new, although of course we have been following the rise of the far right all over. It’s not that we don’t know. And we have not tried to to to study and understand what is going on internationally, but it’s really, really puzzling how people that are so contradictory in their stances can attract people to have confidence on them. This is for me. This is there is a huge contradiction here that I don’t have an answer for.

For example, one of their big stances is the fight against corruption. But if you look at the 50 MPs that were elected, 23 of them have been or are involved in scandals of corruption, have been in jail or are either under investigation, have been on trial, have been accused, have been sentenced. That’s why it si so diffucult for me to envision what will take place in June. This is the first month, these first weeks, everything is new, everything is under scrutiny. Maybe there is some room for understanding better how they will behave and how people will perceive their performances. But yes, right now I would say that she is aiming to a great score for the European elections.

In the final question, I’d like to ask about the prospects for the future. You named earlier some very serious social issues, such as the health care system or education, or immigration questions. So those are very serious problems that the right wing will now need to tackle. And where is the place for the left? Would the left be able to persuade people that the left wing plans are actually working better for the good of everybody? Because it really struck me what you said, that the extreme right used progressive rhetoric, that they suggested something that could have been spoken also by people from the radical left, but still it was the far right that won the confidence of people, not the far left. So what would you see in Portugal’s future then?

I don’t know, because for us, it’s new. There is one moment in the very near future which will be very important. We will still have to see that it will be the 25th of April, 50 years after the revolution. Ever since the revolution took place on the 25th of April, there have been demonstrations for freedom against dictatorship on that day. A kind of remembrance moment, but also with political and social, current political and social demands. It will be very important that all over the country, on the 25th of April, the celebrations and especially the demonstrations are very big. I believe that we must give this sign to society. 18% does not mean that the far right is the majority. Within the center right, there is still a huge part of the voters that vote for the center. There are people who recognize the heritage of the 25th of April.

The parties in the Parliament will try to do what they have to do, hopefully. But I think we must take the streets and we must take the social movements and we must support the trade unions in their work closer to two workers. I think the street will dictate how we can counteract this shift towards the right. Of course, we have a problem here because nobody knows how long this government will last. According to the Portuguese constitution, we held elections for six months. No new elections can be held. By the end of the year, by October-November, the center right party will have to present a national budget, the economic translation of their policies. If this budget is not approved and if they don’t manage to approve some other budget, the government will fall. So we don’t know if this government will last six months, one year, two years or four. 

Of course, this puts the center right party in a very delicate position because they will have to negotiate. Will they negotiate with the far right? If they do it, they risk to disappear by the next elections, with the transfer of votes to the far right. Will they negotiate with the socialists, the Social Democrats in Portugal? It’s very complicated. The Social Democrats, of course, are not willing to join forces with the center-right, because then they leave the opposition to the far right. So we have a balance of forces that used to be between two. Now it’s three and the way you pull the strings has changed a lot.

I don’t want to believe that this is true, but what seems to be happening is in whatever scenario, the far right seems to become the winner. If they force the government to fall, they may profit from it. If they decide not to enter the government, they will not be part of the government. That’s clear. But if they align with the government somehow to allow for this term to go on, maybe they will also gain from it. So it’s very complicated.

I think the political strategy from the left side must isolate the far right. And try to denounce as much as possible their contradictions. For example, just two days ago, the far right said: we already have an agreement with the winning party. They said this. Then two high party officials of the winning party came to the journalists saying: we have no sort of agreement whatsoever. Then, a journalist comes to the leader of the far right and asks him again, so were there negotiations, thoughts, whatever? And they once answer: yes, we have an agreement. Five seconds after they say: but we never talked. Not one single journalist asked then for explanations or whether they talked or not. And they are doing this all the time and nobody is confronting them.

I think this period will be over soon enough. And once this period is over and these people have to be liable for what they say and what they defend, at least these things will change. But right now they can say one thing and the opposite in the same sentence, and nobody and everybody reacts as if this is normal. If this was happening to the former prime minister or now the new prime minister, if he had dared to say one thing and the opposite in the same sentence, everybody would have been asking him: what are you doing? What do you mean?

I think everybody feels mesmerized right now and does not react. But I think this period will be over soon enough. And then we can start again talking about politics, even if we have these people there. We have to deal with them and fight against them, but right now, I think, everybody is paralyzed. I think the moment must come when we break with this, to be able to change things and not accept things as they are.

Let’s really hope so, because what you describe is kind of similar to Czech politics. And things are not getting better in our case. So I wish that in the case of Portugal, these political confusions were possible, messages can be put in one sentence even if they are contradictory, they don’t make sense, are totally normal, and they are totally normal for populists, specifically for the populist forces. So we will really wish Portugal that these are definitely not easy times and are times when the country is having a lot of challenges. At the same time, there is a political instability coming in and uncertainty will be soon over. 

This is also the end of today’s episode. Our guest was a Portuguese activist and facilitator for Transform Europe, Tatiana Moutinho. We thank you very much for your insights into Portuguese politics. Thank you. And of course, thank you everybody watching us today and in other episodes. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us. And I wish everybody a nice day or evening or night.

Subscribe to Cross-border Talks’ YouTube channel! Follow the project’s Facebook and Twitter page! And here is the podcast’s Telegram channel!

Like our work? Donate to Cross-Border Talks or buy us a coffee!

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content