Why doesn’t Portugal have strong populist right-wing parties?

Contrary to countries as the USA, Hungary or Italy, Portugal continues to be a place without a strong presence of far-right parties in the political spectrum.

When looking at the current political panorama in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the rise of the populist right-wing seems ubiquitous. Strong leaders appealing to the dispossessed masses have made huge gains in recent years, from USA’s Donald Trump, to Hungary’s Viktor Orban, to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, to name a few. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany has now become the third most voted party. The Finns Party has become the third most voted party in Finland. The UKIP has led the Brexit campaign. The list goes on. Even if many of these parties have not secured victories in elections, their electoral strength has started to shape the political agenda in Europe and elsewhere.

The victory formula of this increasingly hegemonic discourse is simple, as these leaders promise to ameliorate the economic situation, bring back jobs and put a stop to immigration. It is a formula that mixes three main components[1]: a strong leadership with authoritarian elements, nativism (an appeal to nationalism against globalization and multiculturalism) and an anti-establishment discourse (the establishment being seen as composed by politicians, big business, media, intellectuals).

In this article, I would like to share some thoughts on why Portugal has continued to elude the populist right-wing wave. Several explanations have been offered to why right-wing populism has not taken ground in Portugal. One of the most common is that Portugal is a country of emigrants, who thus know what it means to be an emigrant and are subsequently open to cultural differences. In fact, for centuries, the Portuguese have been leaving the country and established themselves throughout the world. The most recent waves of emigration happened in the 1950s and 1960s in order to escape the tremendous poverty during the right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar, which ended with the Carnation Revolution in 1974. During those years, Portugal was in fact the poorest country in Europe. The most recent wave of emigration happened recently, during the Troika years (2011-2014), when, according to data from the Observatory of Emigration, circa 500,000 people left the country to escape austerity.

Another explanation that has been offered is related to the right-wing ideology of the above-mentioned dictatorship. The memory of the poverty and lack of freedom (namely the memory of a snitching network of informants working for PIDE, the “political police” in charge of interrogating, arresting and torturing those who were suspected of plotting against the regime) has left an indelible mark on those who experienced it.

Another explanation pertains to the particular conditions of the country. Immigration in Portugal is not numerous and most immigrants come from former colonies and speak Portuguese, contributing to a better integration. Portugal is also a very homogenous country. In the past recent years, when António Costa’s government offered to welcome more refugees than those agreed upon by European countries, the response of these refugees was not as expected: the vast majority simply refused to come to Portugal, stating that salaries and economic opportunities were not good. As such, the anti-immigration rhetoric and hostility to multi-culturalism of the populist far-right simply does not find an echo in the Portuguese reality.

This, however, that not mean that there are no racist or xenophobic discourses and practices in the country. Simply, immigration is not visible.

Without denying the heuristic value of these explanations for the absence of populism in Portugal, I would like to offer additional elucidations. The first is that the Portuguese are in particular concerned with the economic performance of the country and are aware that the problems in this field are domestic and related to a past of poverty and lack of adequate education that persist in the low levels of productivity. While the younger population (who had access to mass education after the 1974 revolution) has benefitted from an extraordinary advance and investment in education – an extremely qualified generation that is at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation –, the older generations have a huge deficit in this respect.

Another explanation I would like to advance is the traditional suspicion with which the Portuguese look at politics and politicians. While after the 1974 revolution and until the early 1980s Portugal had one of the highest rates of participation in elections, the abstention rates have grown immensely, now being at circa 50%. While the Portuguese, according to research, believe in democracy, they do not trust politicians. Hence, the Portuguese party system is extremely rigid. Subsequently, it is very difficult for new parties to have sufficient votes to enter parliament. A notable exception is the environmentalist party Persons, Animals and Nature (PAN), which is expected to increase its representation in parliament in today’s legislative elections. This rigidity was evident in the 2011 and 2015 legislative elections: despite the crisis and austerity measures, no new parties entered parliament, with the exception of PAN (one member of parliament) in 2015.

A third explanation concerns the role and strength of the left. Portugal has two electorally significant far-left parties, the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party, who combinedly have a share of votes of circa 18% (according to the legislative elections results in 2015). Both parties are staunch defenders of workers’ rights – one of the banners of the populist right-wing. The communists, in particular, control a large section of trade unions in Portugal. As research and examples elsewhere in Europe have demonstrated, the absence of a strong left has led to the emergence of the populist right-wing as the champions of workers’ rights and, in particular, of the welfare state. On the other hand, another reason why the Portuguese far left parties empty the substance of the populist right-wing discourse is their anti-European rhetoric. The Portuguese communists, in particular, have always opposed Portugal’s accession to the European Union and blame it for the destruction of the Portuguese economy. At the height of austerity, the communists monopolized this discourse successfully, capitalizing on it with an increased share of votes. It should also be stated here that the vast majority of the Portuguese population is a firm believer in EU integration. In fact, the benefits of integration have been visible from the early years of Portugal’s accession to the then European Economic Community: construction of infrastructures, growth in salaries or affording to buy a house through a bank loan – a very peculiar trait of the Portuguese, who prefer to buy, instead of renting, something made possible by the stability of interest rates. In the space of over two decades after the 1974 revolution, Portugal went from the poorest country in Europe to a developed country. A stark contrast indeed.

Finally, I would like to stress the appeasing role of the President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (President of the Republic since 2016). The Portuguese President has successfully deployed what he terms as “affectionate politics” in order to reconcile the citizens and the politicians, especially during times of greater distress, for example during the tragic fires in 2017 that killed over 100 people. Knowing how to talk to the masses, the President has placed himself at the centre of Portuguese politics and is a fundamental piece in it.

As a result of this political stability (which also includes the current unthinkable alliance between the ruling Socialist Party, the communists and the Left Bloc), the previous centre-right government and the current Socialist Party goverment have been very cunning at capitalizing this image of a peaceful, welcoming country in order to attract foreign investment and tourism. Proof of that is, for example, that Portugal has become a hub of the startup sector. Therefore, it not surprising why Portugal is seen as an example to be followed.

[1] Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. 2017. Populism. A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

(This article was written before the legislative elections, that took place on October 6)

  • Professor of Political Science at the Institute of Social and Political Sciences (ISCSP), University of Lisbon