Portugal Had Seemed Immune to Far-Right Populism. Until Now.

Observers fear the electoral gains of a former football commentator turned upstart far-right politician signals a dangerous moment in Portugal’s politics.
January 25, 2021, 6:20pm
Portugal Had Seemed Immune to Far-Right Populism. Until Now.
André Ventura gestures at a campaign event with Marine Le Pen in Sintra, Portugal, earlier this month. Photo: Horacio Villalobos#Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Portugal’s presidential election was a breakthrough moment for the far-right, as a former football commentator known for racist remarks against the Roma and Black politicians finished in third place.

At first glance, the results of Sunday’s election, which returned centre-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to office for another five years, appeared to signal business as usual.

But the strong showing of an upstart far-right candidate, André Ventura, who has led nationalist protests against complaints of racism by minorities, has alarmed observers. They fear the nearly 500,000 votes cast for Ventura’s party, Chega! (“Enough!”), less than two years after it was formed, marks the entrenchment of a radical right presence in the country’s politics for the first time since the end of the dictatorship in 1974.

Ventura, a 38-year-old lawyer by training, came in third with 11.9 percent of the vote, narrowly behind a Socialist candidate. But despite trailing the winner by nearly 49 percentage points, he hailed the result Sunday night as a breakthrough for Chega!, which previously won just 1.3 percent of the vote in elections in 2019, enough to give Ventura the party’s sole seat in parliament.

“For the first time an openly anti-system party has disrupted the traditional right, with nearly half a million votes,” he said on Sunday.

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The result, political scientist Mariana S. Mendes told VICE World News, is significant. For years, Portugal has appeared immune to the wave of right-wing populism that has swept Europe, delivering strong support for nationalist politicians like Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Sweden’s Jimmie Akesson and France’s Marine Le Pen – the latter of whom appeared at a campaign event with Ventura.

But the significant support for Ventura indicated that that was no longer the case. She said it appeared there always had been a domestic audience for Ventura’s populist message – championing the so-called ordinary people in a struggle against corrupt elites and troublesome minorities – they’d just never had a vehicle until Ventura came along.

“The demand has been there for many years,” said Mendes, a researcher at the Mercator Forum for Migration and Democracy at Technische Universität Dresden.

“What was missing was something on the supply side – a person like Ventura who would put this message forward and capitalise on it.”

She said Ventura had started out as a member of Rebelo de Sousa’s PSD, before breaking away to pursue a more populist direction.

“He says he’s the voice of the people, as any populist does. ‘Politicians are corrupt’ or ‘the system is rotten’ – that sort of standard anti-establishment populist discourse.”

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But while much of Ventura’s rhetoric is aimed at the establishment and political elite, he also targets those on the margins, including those on welfare, and minorities. On the campaign trail he insisted he would not be “the president of all Portuguese” – only the “good” ones.

Ventura has repeatedly attacked the country’s Roma minority, accusing them of living on welfare benefits, refusing to integrate, and failing to live by the law. In September, he attacked his Socialist rival in the presidential race, Ana Gomes, as a metaphorical “gypsy candidate,” calling her the “faithful representative of the minorities who do not work and the poor people who claim the racism of the Portuguese.” 

“It is the absolute opposite of my candidacy, which brings together ordinary Portuguese people,” he told the Lusa news agency.

In January last year, he wrote on Facebook that Joacine Katar Moreira, one of the country’s three Black MPs, should “be returned to her own country” after she had called for Portuguese museums to return items taken from former colonies.

A month later, Ventura publicly questioned whether Black footballer Moussa Marega, who walked off the pitch in protest at being taunted by a chorus of monkey chants, was a victim of racism.

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And in June, as the Black Lives Matter movement reached Portugal, Ventura mobilised counter-rallies where marchers shouted “Portugal is not racist.” The sentiment echoed Ventura’s strident statements asserting his pride in Portugal’s colonial history.

Ventura’s rhetoric has sparked concerns he is stoking racist sentiment in Portugal, which has been experiencing a surge in hate crime. Francisca Van Dunem, Portugal’s Angolan-born Justice Minister, said following his attack on Moreira in January that it was an example of “the xenophobic discourse which has begun to invade our institutional spaces and now arrived in parliament.”

Last year, Portugal’s Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination fined Ventura over his social media comments against minorities, particularly targeting the Roma community.

Mendes said she was concerned at both the potential for Ventura’s growing profile to fuel division and the demonisation of minorities, and for his politics to gradually exert an influence at a policy level.

“I think he has a dangerous discourse, including the antagonism against Gypsies,” she said.  “We already have some indicators that racism is becoming more normalised.”

But much depended on how the political mainstream decided to treat Ventura — whether it worked with him or froze him out – and how well his party, which was already showing signs of internal divisions, held together in the increased glare of attention.

She said that Chega! remained largely a political vehicle for Ventura, driven by his political charisma to his supporters and his polished debating style.

“Ventura is the only well-known face of the party and it doesn’t have much structure or organisation,” she said.

But Ventura, whose legal and media credentials made him a slick and forceful communicator, was likely to continue to command a prominent platform.

“I think the reason for his rise in support is very simple – before, he wasn’t well known,” said Mendes. 

“From the moment he got his seat, he’s always in the media. People like to read about him, both his enemies and his supporters. He really captivates the attention of the public.”