Global Affairs

Far-right results overshadow incumbent’s win in Portugal presidential run

On Sunday the 24th of January, amid record rates of infection with over 11,000 new cases a day, Portugal went to the polls to choose its next president. As expected, the centre-right incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa easily won in the first round with 60.7% of the vote. However, it was the candidate placing third which attracted most of the attention. Far-right leader André Ventura won 11.9% of the vote, narrowly behind the centre-left candidate, former Socialist MEP Ana Gomes. 

Portugal has historically seemed immune to the far-right wave that spread through Europe in recent decades. The country lived for 48 years under a civilian ultra-Catholic dictatorship – the Estado Novo. Defined as Corporativist, Single-Party and Multi-Continental regime, the Estado Novo banned all trade unions, and created a secret political police, installing a system of literary, journalistic and artistic censorship. Portugal would be one of the last countries in Europes to recognize the independence of its former colonies, even going to war with liberation movements to prevent it. After over a decade of battles fought to keep colonies like Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau under Portuguese rule, a military coup brought down the dictatorship on April 25th, 1974. It became known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’ when a florist distributed carnations to the soldiers on the streets, who put them in the barrels of their guns as a symbol of a nonviolent revolution.

Despite considerable strife during the first few post-revolution years, with civil conflict breaking out across the country, the regime eventually settled down. Politicians who had fought within the regime for liberalization broke away to form new parties, like Francisco Sá Carneiro’s Social Democratic Party (PSD), or Diogo Freitas do Amaral’s People’s Party (CDS-PP). Others led parties formed in exile, like Mário Soares’ Socialist Party (PS), or even parties that predated the regime and survived in resistance networks or in exile, like Álvaro Cunhal’s Portuguese Communist Party (PCP).

Until 2019, the Christian-Democrat CDS-PP (affiliated in European Parliament with the European People’s Party) was the parliamentary party furthest to the right. There was a  strong representation from parties like the PCP, one of the last Marxist-Leninist political parties still active in European politics, and the far-left Left Bloc (BE), which emerged in the 2000s; both sit with the European United Left/Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament. However, there was no successful anti-system party with real electoral significance to the far right.

This trend was broken when, in 2019, Mr Ventura, leader of the far-right Chega (CH) – literally “Enough” in Portuguese – was narrowly elected as an MP in the 2019 legislative elections. 

Mr Ventura was a relatively obscure law professor before becoming a well-known football commentator, who fiercely supported Benfica. His first foray into politics was during the 2017 municipal elections, when he unsuccessfully stood for Mayor of Loures, a city 13 km to the north of Lisbon, as a PSD/CDS coalition candidate. It was then that he first advanced views well outside the political mainstream in Portugal, criticising what he perceived as leniency towards “problematic” minorities. He went as far as saying that “we have been excessively tolerant towards some ethnic groups and minorities”, and that the Romani community lived “almost exclusively from State subsidies”. Members of his coalition harshly criticised his comments, and the BE candidate reported him to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for incitement of hatred. Leaving the PSD, he founded his own party in 2019, seeking to affiliate it with Identity and Democracy, the European Parliament group which includes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Matteo Salvini’s League. Mr Ventura successfully stood as a candidate for the parliamentary elections of October 6th 2019 on a platform of reducing the number of MPs from 230 to 100, introducing chemical castration, and increasing prison sentences, becoming CH’s first (and so far only) MP. He announced he would run for President on February 2nd, 2020, taking direct aim at the incumbent President, Mr Rebelo de Sousa, and the Socialist candidate, Ms Gomes.

Mr Rebelo de Sousa was already a very well-known figure before his first run in 2016. A renowned law professor and legal scholar, one of the founders of PSD, and a deputy to the Constituent Assembly in 1975, Mr Rebelo de Sousa served as Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in 1982 and led the PSD from 1996 to 1999, in opposition to the Socialist government of António Guterres (now UN Secretary-General). Since the 90s, he was a regular political commentator on TV, becoming a household name.

His predecessor, fellow PSD member and former Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, finished his second five-year term as President of the Republic in 2016. Mr Rebelo de Sousa then presented what was a long-awaited candidacy, winning in the first round with 52% of the vote. A centrist, consensus-seeking proponent of stability, he’s chosen to maintain the PS minority government in order to avoid a political crisis, which has led some PSD members to express their disappointment. However, as President, Mr Rebelo de Sousa has been hugely popular, known for his relaxed posture and jovial persona. Initial opinion polls pointed to a vote share of around 68%.

CDS-PP and PSD announced they would support Mr Rebelo de Sousa’s reelection bid. Given his strong polling and the fact that he was such a popular incumbent, some parties didn’t even present their own candidates. For instance, the governing PS was conspicuously absent. Its good relationship with the President, along with its own internal divisiveness, meant that the candidacy of former Socialist MEP Ana Gomes was not formally supported by the party, though several smaller parties did announce their support along with many well-known PS politicians.

Ana Gomes was a diplomat-turned-politician, who, as Portuguese Ambassador to Indonesia, had a vital role in advocating for independence for East Timor, at the time under Indonesian occupation. A referendum was held in 1999, and independence was proclaimed in 2002. Civil strife followed, and Ms Gomes still had an important part to play in mobilizing Indonesian and East Timorese officials to act against the pro-Indonesian militias which had driven around 250 thousand East Timorese into West Timor.

Upon her return to Portugal, she joined the PS and successfully stood as a candidate for the European Parliament in 2004, where she was an MEP for 14 years. Her personal character is very confrontational, and Ms Gomes has been an outspoken supporter of hacker/whistle-blower Rui Pinto. That, along with her own ideological stance to the left of the PS meant that, in the words of high-ranking PS official and Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva, Ana Gomes was “a good candidate, but one which does not deserve PS’s support”. In contrast, Infrastructure Minister Pedro Nuno Santos, seen by many as the future leader of PS, supported Ana Gomes, criticising Mr Rebelo de Sousa’s “centrism”.

In addition to Ana Gomes, the left presented a very divided front: both the BE and the PCP presented their own candidates, current MEPs Marisa Matias and João Ferreira, respectively. On the right, in addition to President Rebelo de Sousa and Mr Ventura, the newly-founded Liberal Initiative (IL, affiliated with Renew Europe) presented their own candidate: lawyer Tiago Mayan.

Ms Matias was one of the three candidates that had run five years ago, the others being President Rebelo de Sousa and Vitorino Silva, known as Tino de Rans. Elected as President of the Parish Council of Rans (population of 1907 people in 2011), Mr Silva became famous for a passionate speech during a PS party convention (he’s since left the party) and went on to take part in several reality shows, releasing a music album in 2001. In 2016, Mr Silva got 3.28% of the vote; with 10.12%, Ms Matias was the woman with the greatest share of the vote in a Presidential election until 2021.

The 2021 election results were predictable: despite his downward trend in the final polls, President Rebelo de Sousa easily won re-election in the first round with 60.7% of the vote and clinched an unprecedented win in every single municipality. Ms Gomes got second-place with 12.97%, to Mr Ventura’s 11.90%. 

Mr Ventura was actually ahead by a little until votes were counted in Lisbon and in Porto. Porto may have had a special impact, where Mr Ventura had a lower vote share than anywhere else, possibly due to his association as a football commentator for Benfica, a rival to Porto’s home team. Ms Gomes’ small margin over the extremist candidate, combined with the surprisingly disappointing performance of Ms Matias in contrast to her 2016 run (3.95% vs 10.12%) and Mr Ferreira’sweak results (4.32%), led some to suggest that the left made a tremendous strategic error in not presenting a united candidacy. Mr Mayan got 3.22% of the vote, and Mr Silva finished last with 2.94%.

Despite coming in third, Mr Ventura has claimed the result as a huge victory for him and CH, saying on election night that “there won’t be a right-wing government in Portugal without Chega”. But one could argue that the results ultimately prove inhospitable to Mr Ventura. After all, a sensible centrist candidate, like President Rebelo de Sousa, has managed to win the last two elections in the first round. 

The country has since had to focus on the coronavirus pandemic, as cases continue to climb. Meanwhile, the emergence of far-right populism in Portugal suggests that the phenomenon has spread through Europe and taken root. With local elections coming up later this year, it will surely be interesting to see what lies next in Portugal’s political scene.

Originally from Portugal, Duarte is the Senior Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is currently in his third year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Peter's College.