Chega: the worst of the Portuguese political system now has a party


 Fabian Figueiredo writes: For many years, the exceptional absence of extreme-right representatives in Portuguese political institutions has been the subject of questions and studies. Until 2019, Portugal was part of a small group of European Union countries without representatives of the extreme right in its parliaments.

The fact that Portugal is a young democracy, emerging (by revolutionary means) from a long period of 48 years of fascist dictatorship and 13 years of colonial war, is one of the reasons most commonly put forward to explain this particular characteristic. The recent memory of the crimes of the Estado Novo dictatorship of António Oliveira Salazar [1899-1970, president of the Council of Ministers from 1932 to 1968] and Marcello Caetano [1906-1980, president of the Council of Ministers from 1968 to April 1974, then military exile in Brazil] and the democratic gains of the Revolution of April 25, 1974 contributed decisively to keeping the Portuguese extreme right in quarantine for many years. Subsequently, the Portuguese party spectrum proved to be quite resilient, mainly in the right-wing camp. Until 2019, the two main parties of the Portuguese right, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Social Democratic Centre – Popular Party (CDS-PP), had never seen a political formation on their right that has managed to impose itself politically.

These two fundamental characteristics: the memory of repression and poverty under the dictatorship and the stability of the party structure, have given Portuguese democracy 45 years without representatives of extreme right-wing parties being elected to national and regional parliaments and municipal councils.

A quick snapshot of the Portuguese far right in the post-April 25 period

While Portuguese democracy was still taking its first steps, it was already facing destabilization orchestrated by extreme-right terrorist groups. Terrorist organizations such as the MDLP (Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal), the ELP (Army of Portuguese Liberation) and the “Maria da Fonte”, composed mainly of elements of the defunct political police (PIDE) and fascist factions of the army, were responsible for hundreds of kidnappings, assassinations and terrorist attacks against leftist activists and organizations. For their operational capacity, they counted, to a large extent, not only on the financing of businessmen and financiers nostalgic for the Estado Novo and the support of the most reactionary sectors of the Catholic Church, but above all on the support of Franco’s and Brazilian military dictatorships. The political centre of the MDLP operated from Madrid and ELP terrorists received training in large Spanish farms. The leader of the MDLP, Marshal António de Spínola [1910-1996, President of the National Salvation Junta from April 25 to May 16, 1975, President of the Republic from May 15 to September 30, 1974], went into exile in Brazil after his coup attempt was foiled on March 11, 1975 [Mario Soares was to rehabilitate and decorate him in 1987].

In the current autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira, separatist terrorist organizations – the Frente de Libertação dos Açores (FLA) and the Frente de Libertação do Arquipélago da Madeira (FLAMA) – were born and sought to contain the winds blowing from Lisbon through terrorism. Electorally, the right, nostalgic for the dictatorship, organized itself into different micro-parties and failed coalitions: the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), Independent Movement for National Reconstruction – Party of the Portuguese Right (MIRN), the Party of Progress – Portuguese Federalist Movement (PP/MFP) and the National Front (FN).

The coup d’état of 25th November 1975, which put an end to the Revolutionary Process in progress, led to an intensification of the activities of terrorist organizations. Nevertheless the ELP and MDLP terminated their operations in 1976 and FLAMA mounted its last attack in 1978. The extreme right-wing parties then retreated until their extinction. Most of the economic interest groups and personalities linked to these sectors of the Portuguese radical right joined CDS and the PSD. A minority remained on the margins.

In the 1980s and 1900s, the neo-Nazi movement gained a certain presence in the regions of Greater Porto and Lisbon. They organized demonstrations, concerts and created a new party: the National Action Movement (MAN). Like all its predecessors, its life was short. The activity of these groups was practically limited to violent actions. They had a close link with organized crime. Portuguese skinheads were convicted of the murder of a young black man, Alcindo Monteiro [in 1995, he was from Cape Verde]and the leftist activist and member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (PSR), “Zé da Messa” [José Carvalho was killed in October 1989 outside the door of the PSR headquarters in Lisbon]. As a result of this strategy, these skinheads were brought to justice and their main leaders were arrested.

In 1999, a group of far-right activists infiltrated an eroding centrist party, the Democratic Renewal Party (PRD). This group repaid the party’s debts, took control of its leadership and changed its name to National Renewal Party (PNR). The Portuguese Constitutional Court accepted this change in April 2000. The Portuguese extreme right tried to regroup in PNR, but contrary to what happens in many European countries, it did not succeed in coming out of the margins.

The PNR has accumulated successive failures. The best was obtained in the 2015 legislative elections with 0.18% of the cast votes. It has not managed to attract qualified executives, nor has it managed to arouse interest among “economic circles”.

The radicalization of the Portuguese right

In 2011, the Portuguese right wing returned to power. PSD and CDS, supported by the troika’s external intervention [European Central Bank, European Commission and International Monetary Fund], implemented an aggressive four-year austerity program. More than half a million Portuguese people were forced to emigrate, unemployment reached 15.5%, levels close to those of the 1980s, civil servants and pensioners saw their monthly income fall and the majority of workers saw their taxes rise.

The hangover from the shock doctrine was severe. This situation opened up gaps in the camp of the Portuguese right. In 2015, it lost its majority in the legislative elections and saw the birth of a left-wing majority with a programme to cancel the antisocial measures it had taken. The legacy of the troika divided PSD. Former prime minister Passos Coelho [2011-2015] stepped down as party leader. He was succeeded by Rui Rio [former mayor of Porto from 2002 to 2013], who took over the leadership in 2018. He was critical of the “excesses” of austerity that his party subjected Portuguese society to. Back in opposition until today, the PSD remains divided between two wings, one heir to the austerity of Passos Coelho and the other seeking to reposition the party in the centre, led by Rui Rio.

The CDS saw Paulo Portas, its historic leader and former vice-prime minister in the troika government, step down as party leader to make way for the former Minister of Agriculture [2011 to 2015], Assunção Cristas, in March 2016. The party has accumulated defeats in several national elections [4.22 percent of the vote in October 2019] and the successor to Paulo Portas resigned. From January 2020, with a new neoconservative leader, Francisco Rodrigues dos Santos, the CDS is balkanized and faces polls giving it 0.3% of the vote.

The radicalization of the traditional right and the crisis it has provoked in its camp have opened the door to the emergence of two new parties to its right, the ultra-liberal Liberal Initiative (IL) and the far-right Chega (Enough), led by André Ventura. Both represent the empowerment of radicalized sectors of the Portuguese right, which were represented in the leadership of Passos Coelho. It is no coincidence that their leaders and key officials frequently praise the legacy of his government.

Chega’s birth and electoral evolution

In the 2017 municipal elections, the PSD presented André Ventura as candidate for mayor of the municipality of Loures, Portugal’s sixth largest, located in the outskirts north of Lisbon. André Ventura was known for his inflammatory interventions in defence of SL Benfica (Portugal’s largest football club) in sports commentary panels on television on CMTV and for his inflammatory interventions regarding “criminal acts” in the Portuguese tabloid press. As a member of the PSD’s national leadership, he also chose as a campaign flag the denunciation of the gypsy community, the defence of the death penalty, life imprisonment and the strengthening of repression and police surveillance. The national “populist” discourse created unease within its right-wing partner, CDS, which broke with the coalition.

Despite the strong opposition and resistance that his xenophobic and authoritarian discourse aroused in Portuguese society and also among sectors and leaders of the PSD, the then leader, Pedro Passos Coelho, renewed his support for André Ventura. He supported him in the electoral campaign. This gesture can be read today as the fall of the first cordon sanitaire between the right and the Portuguese extreme right.

André Ventura was elected municipal councillor; his candidacy secured 3rd place, behind the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) (which has led the municipality since 2013) and the Socialist Party (PS). In 2018, after the departure of Pedro Passos Coelho from the presidency of the PSD, André Ventura left the PSD and the municipal council and announced the creation of a new party, the Chega.

The far-right formation, after several initial controversies (they tried to legalize the party using false signatures), was accepted by the Constitutional Court in April 2019.

In May 2019, Chega ran in the European elections under the aegis of the Basta (Enough!) coalition, joined by the Popular Monarchist Party (PPM), the Pro-Life Catholic Traditionalists party (PPV) and a liberal microgroup, “Democracia XXI”. The electoral front of the radical right led by André Ventura is not in the European Parliament. It finished in 9th place, with about 50,000 votes (1.49% of the vote). In the legislative elections of October 2019 Chega ran alone, but included the PPV in its lists. It won 67,826 votes (1.29%) and its leader was elected MP for the Lisbon constituency. A few months later, he declared his intention to run in the January 2021 presidential elections.

The Andalusian moment of the Portuguese right wing

Since Chega’s foundation, a debate has been raging within the traditional Portuguese right on its relationship with the extreme right. Until regional elections in the Azores in October 2020, leaders of the Portuguese parliamentary right rejected any agreement with André Ventura’s party. They accused it of presenting proposals incompatible with their “democratic” and “humanist” programmes and principles.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. In the regional elections in the Azores in October 2020, the Socialist Party lost its absolute majority. After a long period of 24 years of opposition, the right may return to power. All that was needed was for José Manuel Bolieiro (leader of the PSD/Azores) to reach a parliamentary agreement with Chega, who won two deputies and 5% of the vote.

The extreme right imposed three conditions on the PSD. The first was a commitment to reduce by 50% the number of beneficiaries of the RSI (Income for Social Insertion, a social support for the poorest of the poor). On average, each beneficiary in the Azores receives 86.11 euros per month. Data published by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) shows that nearly 10% of beneficiaries in the Azores are working, 61.3% are women, mostly single, between the ages of 35 and 44. The Azores are in fact the poorest region in Portugal. In addition, Chega has demanded the creation of an “anti-corruption cabinet” – a “populist” measure of no consequence – and the reduction of the number of deputies in the Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region of the Azores, a measure which, because it depends on the approval of the Parliament of the Republic and the region itself, will hardly see the light of day.

The Portuguese right wing has had its Andalusian moment in the middle of the Atlantic [reference to Vox’s 2018 results in Andalusia with 11 per cent, allowing for the formation of a right-wing government]. The precedent of the Azores agreement shows that the Portuguese liberal and conservative right will make agreements with the extreme right as long as the key to power remains in their hands. It is of little interest to it, when it comes to taking power, that it thus deepens the naturalization of racist, xenophobic and authoritarian discourse, heir to the worst episodes in Portugal’s contemporary history.

What is Chega made of?

If, during the first months of its existence, Chega tried to avoid the label of an extreme right-wing party, it seems that this is no longer a problem for the party leadership. The formation led by André Ventura recently decided to join the European party Identity and Democracy (ID), which brings together most of the European extreme right. He publicly exchanges compliments with the Bolsonaro family, travels to Italy to campaign alongside Matteo Salvini, visits Marine Le Pen in Paris and receives her, in the middle of the presidential campaign, in Lisbon.

The rhetoric and tactics he uses to consolidate his social base also seem to be drawn from the writings of the international extreme right, particularly Bolsonarism: neoliberal economic programme, security discourse, deeply racist and xenophobic, nostalgic appeals to Portuguese colonialism and the dictatorship of the Estado Novo, authoritarian populism, mixed with messianic Christian references. André Ventura went so far as to declare publicly that God had entrusted him with the “difficult but honorable task of transforming Portugal”.

The similarities do not end there. According to Portuguese experts, Chega’s digital militia consists of at least 20,000 fake accounts on social networks. These data explain, to a large extent, the success of the party on Facebook and Youtube. This device is used not only to reinforce the party’s propaganda, but above all to spread misinformation and attack journalists, left-wing leaders and activists of social movements. Chega is a veritable factory of lies that leaves Portuguese fact checkers without fingers to count them.

The economic programme is a veritable liberal vulgate. Chega intends to completely dismantle the Portuguese social state. It wants to privatize the National Health Service, public schools, social security and public transport and hand over all these public goods to private groups. It advocates putting an end to progressive taxation and introducing flat taxes which, if applied, would increase the tax burden for those who earn less and then reduce it for those who earn much more. And it proposes to completely liberalize housing evictions and the Labour Law. In its electoral manifesto, the party even advocates lower wages. While the aggressive shock doctrine defended by André Ventura has created him problems in interviews and debates with opponents – Portugal is one of the most unequal countries in the EU, the at-risk-of-poverty rate before social transfers reaches 43% of the population – it has, on the other hand, served as bait to attract funding and support from various businessmen, real estate investors and bankers (many of whom are linked to various financial scandals).

Many of the “Owners of Portugal” publicly assume that they are mobilizing their resources to support André Ventura. These include businessman João Maria Bravo – owner of Sodarca [arms]and Helibravo [air transport]; Miguel Félix da Costa – whose family was for 75 years the representative of Castrol Lubricants, now an influential real estate and tourism investment manager; Carlos Barbot – owner of Tintas Barbot [inks, colors]; or Paulo Mirpuri – CEO of the airline Hi Fly and Mirpuri Investments.

The Portuguese far right also has strong allies in the financial world. Among them are several senior executives of Grupo Espírito Santo (GES), which went bankrupt in 2014, such as Francisco Sá Nogueira, Salvador Posser de Andrade or Pedro Pessanha. The last two are party members. Posser de Andrade, who is still the director of GES’s former property manager, Coporgest, is a national leader and ran in the Lisbon legislative elections while Pedro Pessanha, a former advisor to the financial group in Angola, is president of Chega’s regional group of Lisbon. Francisco Cruz Martins is former straw man for the business of the Angolan elite in Portugal, and one of the Portuguese names mentioned in the international scandal of the Panama Papers, but also in other national corruption cases, such as the Vale do Lobo case or the bankruptcy of the Banif bank in Madeira. He is a strong supporter of André Ventura. The same can be said of the pharmaceutical businessman, César do Paço, owner of Summit Nutritionals International, which financed CDS until 2019. This ex-consul of Portugal in Florida, in addition to financing Chega, placed in the party his man of confidence – José Lourenço – who, until January 2021, held the position of president of Chega’s Porto chapter.

Like other European “populist” parties of the radical right, Chega’s militant base and leadership structure is an amalgam of groups. The ideologue and first vice-president of the party, Diogo Pacheco de Amorim, has long experience in the Portuguese far right. He was part of fascist student movements that were to the right of the Estado Novo dictatorship. He was a member of the terrorist groups MDLP, where he was part of the “Political Bureau”, and the MIRN. He was Portugal’s representative in the French neo-fascist magazine Nouvelle École and translator of Alain de Benoist’s texts into Portuguese. He was a member of the CDS-PP. He is also a member of the traditional Catholic movement Comunhão e Libertação. Second Vice President Nuno Afonso, currently Chief of Staff to André Ventura in the Assembly of the Republic, has spent his entire career in the PSD, as has its President. The party leadership also includes a president of the police union, José Dias, a member of Opus Dei, Pedro Frazão, and the leader of Chega’s evangelical neo-pentecostal group, Lucinda Ribeiro, who is also active in the denialist groups of Covid-19.

The party’s National Convention Bureau seems to have been the place chosen by the ultra-nationalist wing to feel represented. The president of this body, Luís Filipe Graça, was a member of several neo-Nazi groups, such as the New Social Order (NOS) or the National Opposition Movement (MON), but was also a leader of the National Renewal Party (PNR). Nelson Dias da Silva, a member of this organization and a member of the Chega study group, combines these functions with that of spokesperson for the neo-fascist organization Portuguese First (P1), which includes several well-known faces of the Portuguese neo-Nazi movement, such as João Martins, the assassin of the young black man Alcindo Monteiro.

The party is a growing force in the security forces. The Zero Mouvement (an import of the American Blue Lives Matter movement) is strongly linked to Chega. In November 2019, it organized a demonstration in front of the Portuguese parliament, in collaboration with police union structures. André Ventura was enthusiastically welcomed by hundreds of police officers and was the only political leader invited to speak in front of the demonstrators.

Presidential elections and the reconfiguration of the Portuguese right wing

In the presidential elections of January 2021, André Ventura came third, with 11.9% of the vote, behind incumbent President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (60.70%), supported by the PSD and CDS, and the socialist Ana Gomes (12.97%), who did not have the support of her party (PS), but had the support of People Animals and Nature Party (PAN) and the pro-European party LIVRE. João Ferreira, the candidate supported by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), got 4.32%, Marisa Matias, supported by the Left Bloc got 3.95% of the votes and the ultra-liberal (IL) Tiago Mayan got 3.22%.

The extreme right-wing candidate won, although he set himself the goal of finishing ahead of Ana Gomes. The result obtained by André Ventura gave rise to much speculation. On the night of the election, many commentators jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that the leader of the extreme right would have obtained his votes from the traditional left-wing electorate. Recent and more in-depth studies have refuted this thesis. The left-wing electorate, which abandoned Ana Gomes, João Ferreira and Marisa Matias, focused its vote on the outgoing president of the Republic. The fact that Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa did not hinder the government of the left-wing majority [PS with external, conditioned support from the Left Bloc and the PCP] and presented himself in the elections as an obstacle to the racist and authoritarian agenda of the extreme right, earned him a comfortable victory in the first round. Under these conditions, he won the support of thousands of traditional socialist voters, the Left Bloc and the PCP.

André Ventura’s votes came from the most radical fringes of the traditional right, especially in the interior of the country and in the central region. The “normalization” of Chega by the PSD, especially after the agreement in the Azores, and the erosion of the CDS may have contributed to this result. Racist and violent discourse against the Roma community also seems to have played a role. André Ventura achieved significant results in municipalities with the largest Roma populations, particularly in Alentejo. Indeed, among the almost half a million voters for André Ventura in the presidential elections were many people from the working classes who found in this candidacy the answer to their frustration. But, according to several Portuguese academics, these voters are citizens who, for the most part, have already voted for the right (CDS and PSD).

The balkanization of the right-wing parties into four (PSD, CDS, Chega and Iniciativa Liberal) did not allow them to mobilize a larger part of the electorate. All opinion polls indicate that the vast majority of Portuguese people continue to feel represented by left-wing parties. However, the left should not view this with comfort or recklessness.

Portugal is going through three serious crises: the pandemic crisis, the social crisis and the economic crisis. The Portuguese left must be able to find a programme for majorities and a mobilizing programme to overcome the crisis and leave no one in the way. The unemployment and reduction of income that thousands of Portuguese face, as well as the natural fatigue imposed by the containment measures, can quickly become a factor for the rise of an extreme right-wing majority. Prediction in politics is always a risky exercise. But it is difficult for a future right-wing government not to depend on the extreme right and its racist, discriminatory and authoritarian agenda – with the consequences that we see with Salvini in Italy, Órban in Hungary, Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil.


Fabian Figueiredo is a sociologist and a leader of the Portuguese Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda).


Comments are closed.