Chega Emerges as the Elephant in the Room: What’s Next?

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Chega, a populist radical right-wing party known for its anti-systemic, morally conservative, and securitarian rhetoric, secured 48 MPs, solidifying its position as the most influential third force ever in the Parliament. This marks a substantial transformation in Portuguese politics. Despite warnings from the Left about the imminent threat of fascism, voters persist in seeking straightforward solutions and placing blame on elites and immigrants. Now, the pivotal question arises: “Will the Democratic Alliance break its cordon sanitaire with Chega?”

By João Ferreira Dias

Portuguese legislative elections have ushered in a new era in parliament, potentially marking the end of the historical bipartisanship between the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social-Democratic (PSD) side. While failing to secure a majority, the Democratic Alliance (AD) emerged as the electoral victor on March 10. Led by the PSD with the participation of CDS (the democratic-Christians) and PPM (the monarchic party), the AD capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction stemming from the Socialist Party’s eight-year tenure marred by numerous scandals and political turmoil.

Initially positioned advantageously, the AD sought to harness widespread dissatisfaction for electoral success. However, as we know, championing dissatisfaction is often the terrain of radical right-wing populist parties (as summarized by Kaltwasser et al., 2017). Despite this, the AD encountered significant hurdles: lingering memories of austerity measures imposed by the troika, which had become internalized as ideology, were deeply felt by pensioners and public sector workers—key segments of Portugal’s electorate. Additionally, the leader faced challenges in rallying public support. Despite vulnerabilities within the Socialist Party, exacerbated by a leadership change following murky allegations of corruption involving Prime Minister António Costa, the AD’s victory remained tenuous, narrowly avoiding a stalemate.

The Portuguese parliament consists of 230 members, requiring 116 MPs for a majority. With 99 percent of the votes counted (pending results from 31 consulates), the AD secured 79 MPs, while the Socialists claimed 76. Meanwhile, Chega, a populist radical right-wing party, obtained 48 MPs, establishing itself as the most formidable third force ever in the Parliament. This signals a significant shift in Portuguese politics.

Chega is a quintessential populist radical right party known for its anti-systemic, morally conservative, and securitarian rhetoric (see Marchi 2020, 2022), coupled with fluid economic ideas, as suggested by feedback from its potential electors. However, its illiberal positions and involvement in culture wars, such as its opposition to the so-called "gender ideology" and stance on immigration control, have led to substantial public disapproval of the Chega party.

In the 2022 elections, the Socialist Party (PS) secured an absolute majority, partly because the then-leader of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) was ambiguous about potential collaborations with Chega. Consequently, the current PSD leader, Luís Montenegro, felt compelled to state unequivocally that he would never form alliances with Chega. This clear stance was crucial to reassure the moderate electorate and ensure their confidence in voting for the Democratic Alliance (AD). At this juncture, any negotiation with Chega would be perceived as a betrayal to the center and center-right voters who supported the AD based on a firm "no means no" commitment. Nevertheless, Chega’s leader, André Ventura, has advocated for an outright majority of the right altogether, applying pressure on AD to negotiate and, ultimately, gain a position in a future government, which is his fundamental ambition.

Chega’s success can be attributed to multiple factors, including a culture that craves a messianic leader, as outlined by Ferreira Dias (2022). Additionally, widespread political disengagement among the population, coupled with significant political illiteracy, has played a role. Moreover, feelings of neglect among rural communities, demographic shifts marked by a rapid increase in immigrants in previously unaffected areas, and a perception of corruption among political elites have contributed to Chega’s rise. These phenomena are not unique to Portugal but are common hallmarks of populist movements worldwide.

The 22-catch question is: Will the Democratic Alliance abandon its cordon sanitaire of Chega? Despite Chega’s populist aspirations, its leader, André Ventura, has expressed readiness to form a government with the DA. This lends credence to the view, shared by many including myself, that Chega was primarily a vehicle for gaining swift access to power. As mentioned, Luís Montenegro, leader of the DA, has firmly rejected any alliances with Chega. However, the practicalities of governance could potentially challenge this principled stance. If such negotiations become necessary, we might witness Luís Montenegro being replaced by a new leader willing to engage in discussions with Chega.

Just as André Ventura intended, Chega (or rather, he himself) has become a crucial player in the national political landscape and has the potential to disrupt the entire system. The ability of the Portuguese Right to function cohesively without Chega is dwindling, as it now primarily relies on the Democratic Alliance (DA), with the Liberal Initiative as the only other significant force, commanding just eight seats in parliament. Despite Montenegro’s best efforts, breaking free from Chega’s influence appears increasingly challenging. It’s likely that André Ventura’s party will allow government programs to pass, preferring to evade responsibility for any national political deadlock in order to gain political leverage in future elections, potentially bolstering its parliamentary presence to around 70/80 MPs and positioning itself for a shot at forming a government.

It appears evident that the Left’s narrative of "fascism is coming" has failed to resonate. Instead, people continue to gravitate toward simplistic solutions and identifiable scapegoats, such as elites and immigrants. This trend is not confined to Portugal but reflects a global phenomenon, highlighting a troubling divergence between democracy and liberalism, which resonates particularly with the younger generation. The strain on the system is further exacerbated by excessive bureaucracy, a sense of detachment from decision-making processes, a perception that legislators do not adequately represent the people‘s interests, widespread distrust due to corruption, and a fading collective memory of the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century (Mounk, 2018).


References

Ferreira Dias, J. (2022). “Political Messianism in Portugal, the Case of André Ventura.” Slovenská politologická revue, 22(1), 79-107. 

Kaltwasser, C. R.; Taggart, P.; Espejo, P. O. & Ostiguy, P. (2017). “Populism: An Overview of the Concept and the State of the Art.” In: Kaltwasser, C. R., Taggart, P. A., Espejo, P. O. and Ostiguy, P. eds. The Oxford Handbook of Populism. pp. 1-24. Marchi, R. (2020). A nova direita anti-sistema-O caso do Chega. Leya. Marchi, R. (2022). Portugal y la derecha radical: otra «excepción» que cae. Nueva Sociedad, (300), 14-24.

Mounk, Y. (2018). “The people vs. democracy: Why our freedom is in danger and how to save it.” In: The People vs. Democracy. Harvard University Press.

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