Progressive forces in Portugal find themselves fighting a war on two fronts: a resurgent far right has been making inroads into the country’s politics, while the long-standing monopoly on power held by the parties of the “big centre” has stifled the voices of any genuine opposition. In a society where the legacy of dictatorship and colonialism can still be felt, where racism remains rife, and ecological thinking has yet to take root, setting out a unifying political vision to take on these powerful rivals is far from simple.

In Portugal’s January 2021 presidential election, a far-right candidate managed to secure more than half a million votes to reach third place. That candidate was André Ventura, an MP and leader of Chega (translated as: “Enough”), a proto-fascist Portuguese party which became a member of the European Parliament’s Identity and Democracy group in October 2019, just months after the party’s formation in April the same year.

Until 2019, Portugal was touted as seemingly immune to far-right populism in the political arena, in stark contrast to other parts of Europe. Several causes for this were suggested, ranging from the country’s large diaspora, and thus increased sensitivity to heterogeneous cultural backgrounds, to the not-so-distant memory of dictatorship, which would deter people from the colonialist isolationism that accompanied poverty and repression. Immigration was also considered to play a role, perceived as having a lesser impact than in other European countries and mostly originating from Portuguese-speaking countries, thereby allowing for easier integration. Together, these factors served as an explanation as to why a xenophobic nationalistic rhetoric would not resonate with the general electorate, as it would not be addressing any real fear among the population.

Paving the way for populism

The political centre (dubbed “centrão” in Portuguese political lingo, literally “big centre”), comprising the main centre-left and centre-right parties, has been in power since the Carnation Revolution of 1974 which marked the beginning of the country’s transition to democracy. During this time, it has consistently eroded the political environment and fuelled distrust of political parties and political intervention. Data collected since 1985 shows that no more than 26 per cent of the population feel a sense of trust towards political parties. Most citizens do not trust EU institutions or political actors either, despite a slight improvement since the external intervention of the troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) from 2011 to 2014. Moreover, in 2020 Portugal received its worst score since 2012 in the Corruption Perception Index compiled by the NGO Transparency International, putting the country below the EU average.

The centre-left Socialist Party (PS) and centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) – belonging respectively to the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and European People’s Party (EPP) groupings in the European Parliament, despite the misleading names – have alternated in power since the establishment of democracy in Portugal. Their economic policies in terms of labour market flexibility and liberalisation as well as their failure to address corruption and human rights (such as access to housing or fighting systematic racism) have contributed to a politically alienated society. The growing dissatisfaction with the political elite has created fertile ground for emerging populist movements to take advantage of the weaknesses of the regime.

The results of January’s election alongside the success of Ventura take place in a context of parliamentary stagnation. The alternation in the government occurring since the 1980s between the PS and the PSD showed signs of faltering after the 2015 elections, when an innovative parliamentary coalition between the PS, which had come in second place, and the smaller Unitary Democratic Coalition (CDU) and Left Bloc (BE) parties, both left-wing and progressive, enabled a functioning PS-led government. But it returned in 2019, after the distancing of the coalition partners on the left. On the other hand, the failure of the traditional opposition parties during a PS government, the PSD and People’s Party (CDS), to provide an alternative boosted claims that the “system” was no longer fit for purpose. In a country that has for decades avoided dealing with structural racism and hotspots of xenophobia, such as hostility towards Roma communities, this political landscape ultimately paved the way for the breakthrough of a candidate from a one-man party who has no trouble campaigning with the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini, or endorsing Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

The growing dissatisfaction with the political elite has created fertile ground for emerging populist movements to take advantage of the weaknesses of the regime.

Ventura started his political career in the junior structures of PSD and ran for mayor in a city in the outskirts of Lisbon in 2017. His use of anti-Roma rhetoric in his campaign lost him the support of the CDS, but the PSD continued to back him, illustrating how racism and xenophobia are tacitly accepted in the dominant parties. Similar discrimination against Roma communities is observed among the ranks of the PS, ranging from its mayors to MEPs.

In the presidential election, the big centre candidates gathered 60 per cent of the votes, the traditional left just over 8 per cent, the populist extreme-right under 12 per cent, and other candidates another 6 per cent. Ana Gomes, a member of the Socialist Party and former MEP, endorsed by eco-socialist party LIVRE and the animal welfare party PAN, rose to almost 13 per cent. Gomes was unapologetically anti-corruption, fighting for minorities’ and workers’ rights as well as for a broader and serious involvement of Portuguese society in the European project. This shows there is still an urgent need for a progressive, green, and cosmopolitan agenda.

The future of Portuguese progressivism

The Portuguese left is still fundamentally shaped by the end of the dictatorship and the transition to a democratic regime. The PS and the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP, part of the CDU which supported the government in 2015 and is the oldest active political party in Portugal) were the main forces on the left until the end of the century, when smaller forces dating from the Revolution converged into the Left Bloc (BE, the other supporter of the 2015 government). The third way position chosen by PS, the orthodox Marxist-Leninist approach of PCP, and the Left Bloc’s inability to exert a progressive influence in the governing of the PS have prevented the much-needed transformative left agenda from gaining ground in Portugal.

Portuguese progressivism is currently found in citizens’ movements, associations, and small parties, but has yet to break free from the frozen landscape of parties in the political scene. The challenges at hand, however, call for an urgent democratic, ecological, and cosmopolitan agenda.

Portuguese progressivism is currently found in citizens’ movements, associations, and small parties, but has yet to break free from the frozen landscape of parties in the political scene.

The emergent proto-fascism present in political discourse exploits inequalities and injustices in society that are the by-product of a predominantly extractivist, colonialist, and sexist capitalist system. At the same time, the proto-fascist forces are funded and reinforced by this very same system that generates the ailments they promise to fight. Populist rhetoric appropriates anti-system thinking as its sheep’s clothing, connecting to those feeling left behind while remaining a wolf underneath. The progressive left must not ignore or play down the wolf’s strikes at freedom and democracy.

Facing up to Portugal’s colonialist past

Portuguese history cannot be looked at in isolation from colonialism, slavery, and racism. Racism persists, largely due to the “good coloniser” myth still taught in schools: the idea that Portuguese colonialism was beneficial to the colonised peoples. The extent of structural racism was revealed by the European Social Survey of 2018-2019, which found that 62 per cent of Portuguese people expressed agreement with at least one of the presented racist beliefs, with only 11 per cent disagreeing with every racist belief presented.

Some sectors and movements in Portuguese society have awakened to the fight against racism, largely through external influences such as the Black Lives Matter movement. There is now a clear and strong demand among the younger generations for Portuguese society to confront its colonialist and racist roots. This affects their voting preferences, and thus the progressive movement cannot afford to ignore these issues.

The dynamics and proposals of the traditional leftist parties are still clinging to a past that holds Portugal’s future hostage.

Those roots still cast their shadow in the form of inequalities in access to housing, employment or education. In particular, racism against the Roma community remains the most serious example of social exclusion, both legally (police forces in 1985 stated special surveillance over “nomad” people) and culturally.

The degradation of social cohesion is worsened by a system engineered to prioritise profit, to the detriment of social justice. In Portugal, it takes five generations for a poor family to reach the average income level. The inequality that allows the top 20 per cent to hold more than 70 per cent of the wealth while the bottom 20 per cent are left with 0.1 per cent is a major factor driving the lack of opportunities for current and future generations.

A necessary paradigm shift

On the environment front, despite the efforts of the last 15 years, Portugal still lacks a sound environmental strategy that allows for a green and just transition and the recovery of its natural heritage. Recent discussions around a climate law in Portugal demonstrate the lack of commitment on decarbonising the economy. Only now are such discussions being held at a parliamentary level and the parties’ proposals are vague and unclear about concrete goals. Even this will mean nothing if the government does not back the law’s funding and implementation, which is not expected to happen given the current government’s track record on environmental policy.

The fact that the building of a new airport in a protected area to serve Lisbon is still being discussed despite multiple criticisms demonstrates the nature of the Portuguese debate on environment and climate. This is regardless of favourable conditions in the country, such as the vast maritime zone or plentiful sunlight, for public policies that would lead a green transition while restructuring its economy and allowing for a development model that promotes social cohesion.

The challenges at hand call for an urgent democratic, ecological, and cosmopolitan agenda.

The progressive ecologist political alternative is not yet dominant among the Portuguese left, which is further delaying a much-needed transition. The parties of the traditional left are not prepared to fight the far right, nor do they offer a comprehensive alternative that addresses inequality, corruption, and the lack of social and environmental justice. Their dynamics and, consequently, their proposals are still clinging to a past that holds Portugal’s future hostage. Some sectors of the Left are still socially conservative or overly orthodox and do not commit themselves to a common agenda that makes it possible to respond to people’s needs while providing progressive transformation.

In a country with clusters of poverty and endemic precariousness, state support is easily turned into anti-poor, racist go-to speech by the far right. The fight for social, political, and economic freedom needs to be fought once again, now under the universalist values of social and environmental justice and equality. This freedom will only be meaningfully achieved when access to health, housing, and education – principles of the Portuguese Constitution – is available to everyone. This stance, in a clear rebuttal of the advancing proto-fascist agenda, requires progressive forces to adapt to new dynamics. Traditional parties’ inertia squanders the opportunity to seize the national agenda and risks leaving it for proto-fascist forces to encroach upon.

The big centre has also dominated the discourse around Europe, leaving the themes of European cooperation and integration contaminated by the main parties’ conduct. There is a risk that extreme right-wing populism will control this dynamic and take advantage of popular dissatisfaction with the big centre parties. The traditional sectors of the Left are characterised by a mild Euroscepticism, so progressivism takes a gamble when looking critically at European construction, especially at a time when Portugal presides over the Council of the European Union.

The silent Portuguese presidency of the EU

When Portugal took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at the beginning of 2021, the debate about Europe in the Portuguese media focussed on the nomination for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). This EU office has the power to investigate, prosecute, and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption, or serious cross-border VAT fraud, which is of utmost importance given the amount of public funding granted by the European Commission as a response to the pandemic (notably the Recovery and Resilience Facility). The nomination of the Portuguese prosecutor was troubled from the beginning, as the government overrode the decision of the selection committee in charge of the process. Once again, the parties of the big centre arranged for the final decision on the nomination to be sanctioned by the Portuguese judiciary system’s institutions.

By doing so, the two biggest Portuguese political parties turned a European procedure into one subject to the entrenched national dynamics.  It is not unreasonable to assume that both parties failed to foresee the implications of this blow to the EPPO’s integrity: with this precedent set, nothing will stop Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party or Hungary’s Fidesz, for instance, from treating the European prosecutor’s nomination as a matter relating to the national judicial system and further undermining the EPPO.

The lack of a proper debate around Europe benefits the big centre, as it allows for the nationalisation of European successes and Europeanisation of national failures.

Above all, this issue represents the approach to European matters that is taken as the norm in Portugal: single, out-of-context cases that are viewed through the national lens and subject to the biases of national politics. The European Union is regarded as little more than a vehicle for funding some local economic development. This limiting perspective significantly hampers Portugal’s role and capacity to build the European project. The traditional Portuguese left alternates between this self-interested view and light Euroscepticism. The European Union and European democracy have enjoyed considerable popularity in Portugal, even during the troika period. As a result, the traditional leftist forces, and even the populist extreme right, have avoided overtly Eurosceptic discourse.

The lack of a proper debate around Europe benefits the big centre and is thus perpetuated by it, as it allows for the nationalisation of European successes and Europeanisation of national failures. This course of action, preferred by consecutive governments from PS and PSD, alienates the population from the process of creating a democratic EU.

The Conference on the Future of Europe, expected to promote dialogue between European citizens, is tied to the institutions, leaving citizens without a voice in the decision-making processes that will inevitably shape their lives [read more on the Conference on the Future of Europe]. The Portuguese EU Presidency thus far has been marked by similar failings: disconnected from citizens, without civil engagement, and with little reflection on the future. Instead of capitalising on the unique opportunity to strengthen connections with Europe, we see a chronic lack of ambition mixed with the loss of Portugal’s credibility caused by irregular procedures and opacity. Instead of restoring faith in continent-wide cooperation by highlighting its advantages, the way is being paved for the growth of extremism and a rebuttal of multilateralism. The future is not this way.

Progressive forces, particularly in Portugal, are now tasked with the difficult job of providing a political alternative to proto-fascist populism and reckoning with the colonialist past and racist present that help drive that populism. Simultaneously, they must respond to the social, pandemic, and environmental crises and address the concrete problems in people’s lives. Taking on these different areas of action will be hard, but it is possible.

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