In Portugal, we’re celebrating 50 years of freedom. So why is the far right creeping back? | Vicente Valentim

In Portugal, we’re celebrating 50 years of freedom. So why is the far right creeping back? | Vicente Valentim

Fifty years ago, on 25 April 1974, a military-led movement in Portugal took down the rightwing authoritarian regime that had governed the country for 41 years. The Carnation Revolution, named after the flowers people offered soldiers on the streets, led the country to democracy and an era of immense social progress – reducing infant mortality and illiteracy rates, for example, which were comparatively very high in 1974. By 1986, Portugal had made enough strides to be able to join the European Communities, now the EU.

I was born in the early 1990s, but even in my generation 25 April is a hallowed anniversary for many. Growing up as a teenager interested in politics generated a strong emotional attachment to a national holiday centred on the celebration of political freedom.

But as collective memory of the dictatorship becomes increasingly distant, the mobilising force of democracy as an ideal is also starting to fade. The revolution and our very recent history of rightwing authoritarianism have long been seen as factors that would offer Portugal immunity as far-right parties surged across Europe. But this exceptionalism came to an end in 2019, when a new party, Chega, became the first radical-right platform since the revolution to enter parliament. The party’s leader catapulted to media attention after making xenophobic statements about the Roma community, one of the most discriminated-against minorities in the country.

Chega leader André Ventura addressing supporters at an election night event in Lisbon, Portugal, 10 March 2024. Photograph: Andre Dias Nobre/AFP/Getty ImagesWith the party capitalising on dissatisfaction with democracy and government performance and resentment against welfare recipients, its support has grown spectacularly from 1.3% of the vote in 2019 to 7.2% in 2022 and 18.1% in the general election in March 2024. As someone who studies the dynamics that typically follow far-right success in other countries, one of my main frustrations, given Portugal’s history, has been to witness how so many of the same patterns have ended up being repeated in my country, like an old movie rewatched one too many times.

Portugal’s political system in the democratic era settled into a traditional two-party model: the centre-left Socialist party (PS) and the centre-right Social Democratic party (PSD) alternated in government, sometimes in coalition with smaller parties to ensure absolute majorities.

In the most recent general election, however, the far right achieved the highest-ever vote share by a third party, a result that challenges the viability of the traditional coalition patterns. The centre-right PSD leader Luís Montenegro ruled out any electoral deals with the far right during the campaign, a promise that he honoured even after securing only a wafer-thin majority. But maintaining this cordon sanitaire against coalition with Chega leaves the centre right with few options, if it wants to stay in power, but to form more unstable, minority governments.

The temptation to negotiate with the far right for a more stable government will grow stronger. In any future leadership race, a potential challenger is likely to blame the current leadership for lack of pragmatism and push for more openness to negotiations with the far right.

Another dynamic that typically follows far-right success, and which is also being replicated in the Portuguese context, is how it promotes a cultural backlash. In my work, I have studied how far-right success can make an associated ideology or behaviours more socially acceptable. Signs of this happening are already becoming visible in Portuguese society. The country has long struggled to contain racism or indeed engage in any meaningful national debate about its colonial past. One study of school history textbooks in Portugal found that they perpetuated an image of the country as a “good coloniser”. However, Chega’s electoral breakthrough seems to have exacerbated the resistance to examining these issues. In one of the most worrying trends, the growth in support for the party has been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes against minorities.

Portuguese soldiers with carnations on their uniforms and in their gun barrels in Lisbon, Portugal, 29 April 1974. Photograph: Bettmann/Getty ImagesThe emergence of a modern far-right party has also led to a rightwards push among some in the senior ranks of the political establishment. In the aftermath of the election, a number of prominent figures on the right published a book pushing for a more conservative stance on social and cultural issues. The book was launched by a former PSD prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho. Formerly a supporter of child adoption by gay couples, he now presents himself as one of the main sponsors of a manifesto in defence of “traditional families” and against “gender ideology”.

To be sure, some might argue that such trends are a positive sign of the health of Portugal’s democracy. They could highlight, for example, how the far right has mobilised previously disfranchised voters and contributed to a boost in voter turnout after decades of almost continuous slippage. They could highlight, also, how the far right has helped to put issues such as corruption, with which the country has struggled for years, back on the political agenda.

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But even if populist parties are good at identifying grievances sometimes generated in a democracy, they are bad at proposing solutions. The solution to the deficits of democracy has to be found in deepening democracy – not diluting democratic values via scapegoating minorities or ditching policies of inclusion.

It is still unclear how Portuguese democracy will respond to the new challenges posed by the rise of the far right and the end of the traditional two-party system. What is clear, however, is that Portugal finds itself at a crucial political crossroads.

Overcoming the social and economic backwardness left behind by the dictatorship and creating a stable, healthy democracy has been Portugal’s main challenge in its first half-century after the Carnation Revolution. Keeping alive the memory of why the revolution was necessary may be one of the challenges of its second.

Vicente Valentim is a political scientist. His book on the normalisation of the radical right is due out in 2024

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