26 janeiro 2022

Financial Times

 O CHEGA no Financial Times: cf. aqui.

Far-right party poll's gains shows Portugal not immune to populism

André Ventura honed his belligerent political style as a pundit on Benfica football club’s television channel and other soccer shows that regularly degenerated into insults and shouting matches. His rapid-fire polemics have been delivered to a much wider audience during campaigning for Portugal’s parliamentary election, to be held on Sunday, as the far-right populist Chega party he founded sets its sights on a role in government. 

Polls show that Chega, which translates as “Enough”, could emerge as the third-largest party, an outcome that would extinguish the idea — cherished by many Portuguese until recently — that the country was immune to far-right populism. As the poll gap between the ruling Socialist party (PS) and the opposition centre-right Social Democratic party (PSD) narrows, it could also make Chega’s support vital to the formation of a right-of-centre government. “There will not be a government on the right without Chega,” Ventura told supporters on a recent campaign stop in northern Portugal, as he stood in front of a poster that promised to shake up the system. 

Ventura, who recently marked his birthday by posting a picture on social media of himself praying in church, set up Chega less than three years ago and is its only public face. The son of a Lisbon bike shop owner who attended a Catholic seminary before studying law, Ventura worked as a lecturer and tax consultant before moving into politics as a local councillor for the PSD. He quit the party in 2018 and now talks about becoming deputy prime minister in a Social Democrat-led government. 

Campaign debates and social media have given the 39-year-old a platform for a range of contentious proposals, including life imprisonment for violent crimes, chemical castration for paedophiles, a single income tax rate and a drastic reduction in the size of parliament. Corruption is a constant theme. “These bandits have been robbing our country for decades,” he told supporters at a campaign dinner, proposing big increases in jail sentences for graft. During town centre walkabouts, flag-waving supporters cheer and opponents heckle. “Get a job,” called a man in the northern town of Aveiro, throwing back at Ventura the phrase that Chega activists often shout at their critics.

 In the same way that opponents describe his TV punditry career as driven by a desire for media exposure rather than passion for football, they see his politics as guided more by personal ambition than ideological fervour. “Ventura emerged from the moderate PSD, not an extremist background,” said António Costa Pinto, a politics professor at Lisbon university’s Institute of Social Sciences. Yet while Portugal has no significant immigration issues, Ventura has sought to stigmatise the country’s small Roma community and has been fined by Portugal’s antiracial discrimination commission for social media comments about them. He has repeatedly described people receiving state benefits as having “a Mercedes at their door”, saying many were “welfare scroungers”.

In a country where one in five people are at risk of falling below the poverty line, he has offered no evidence for his claims. A court ordered him last year to apologise to a family of African origin that he insulted in a TV debate, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court, which found the remarks were in part racially motivated. “Minorities have rights, but also responsibilities,” Ventura said last year at a march organised by the party under the slogan “Portugal is not racist”. Ventura was not available for interview and Chega did not respond to a request for comment. Ventura with Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Rassemblement National, ahead of Portugal’s presidential election last year, in which he won almost 12% of the vote.

Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain’s hard-right Vox party, has travelled to Lisbon to support his campaign, as did Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Rassemblement National, during Portugal’s presidential election last year. In 2020, Chega accepted an invitation to join Identity and Democracy, a far-right group in the European Parliament. The party won only 1.4 per cent of the vote in 2019, as Ventura was elected as its first and only MP. But he polled almost 12 per cent in the presidential election two years later, as party politics on the right fractured in opposition to a PS government supported by the radical left. 

Chega could win more than 6 per cent of the vote on Sunday, according to polls, to overtake the Left Bloc and the Communists. The two far-left groups have backed António Costa’s minority Socialist government since 2015, but voters are likely to punish them for triggering the election two years ahead of schedule by rejecting his 2022 budget. Recommended Portugal Emigration and low growth fuel Portugal’s demographic crisis If Chega can secure third place, Rui Rio, the PSD leader seeking to replace Costa as prime minister, would need the party’s support to form a viable government. He, however, has ruled out any government role for Ventura’s party. “It’s going to happen, if not after this election then after the next one,” said Francisco Pereira Coutinho, a constitutional law professor at Lisbon’s Nova university. “It’s going to be impossible to have a majority on the right without the populists.” 

Before the rise of Chega and Vox, the third-largest party in Spain, political analysts argued that long, rightwing dictatorships lasting into the 1970s had “inoculated” both countries against the wave of nationalist populism that has emerged in Europe. But half a century after the demise of those regimes, voters in Portugal are less fearful of being socially shamed for having avowedly rightwing views. Parliamentary arithmetic means it is not just Portugal’s voters who face a choice. “Sooner or later,” Pereira Coutinho said, “a losing PS will have to choose between making a minority PSD government viable by abstaining in parliamentary votes or forcing them to turn to Chega for support.”

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