Portugal’s presidential election took place on January 24 as the country's COVID-19 death rate surged.
Only 40 percent of the electorate voted. A second round was unnecessary because the incumbent, 72-year-old Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, obtained a clear plurality. “Marcelo,” as he is universally called, is a voluble and approachable political operator. He was backed by the two parties that have dominated politics for the last 45 years. His vehicle, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), was born during the brief revolution of 1974-75 that followed the collapse of the conservative authoritarian regime long presided over by António de Oliveira Salazar. This center-right formation adopted a left-wing name in order to keep pace with the radical spirit of those times.
By now, ideological fervor is mostly a thing of the past in Portugal. Both the PSD and the Socialist PS are dominated by cliques that often influence bureaucratic appointments and pack the state utility companies and semi-private banks with relatives and cronies. The excesses of the political class finally led to the bankruptcy of the state in 2011. An emergency bail-out from the European Union was required to keep public services going.
The external lordship exercised by the E.U. and the IMF led to greater transparency and improvements in the regulation of public finances. But a decade on, a largely unrepentent political class continues to use scarce public money to shield well-connected financial entities from collapse.
For a long time, the far left was a reliable critic of this amoral set-up. But since 2015 both the communist party and its Trotskyite rival have been absorbed into the system of favors and deal-making. They have been propping up the current socialist government in return for various concessions.
The almost half a million votes obtained by André Ventura, a dedicated foe of the Portuguese system of “partyocracy,” indicate that increasing numbers of citizens have had enough. Chega (which means “enough”) is the name of the party that this 38-year-old lawyer formed a few months before the general election of 2019. In that election, he got 1.3 percent of the vote and a seat in parliament. On January 24 he obtained nearly 12 percent of the vote and his party is now probably the third biggest in Portugal in terms of activists.
Before entering politics, this brash, fast-talking figure established a national profile as a sports commentator. He now calls for an elected presidential system to replace the floundering Portuguese parliamentary order dominated by political families absorbed by their own group interests. These political figures are said to be above the law, and show little interest in ensuring an efficient system of law and order for the ten million Portuguese. Ventura hopes to transform the political system via a referendum on the Constitution. He believes that a presidential system will make the government more responsive to the needs of the people.
Ventura has made headlines for his views on a variety of issues. Last year, he was fined over €400 by Portugal's Commission for Equality and Against Racial Discrimination for claiming that the country's Gypsy community was dependent on state subsidies and had no interest in integration—he said that 90 percent of Gypsies made a living not from regular work but “other things.” He warns that Portugal is creating future problems with other growing minorities by adopting a relaxed approach to theft and a permissive approach to customs that violate the law.
He believes that immigration policy should be decided nationally, not as part of a wider global framework under the aegis of the United Nations. He watches with disapproval as former prime minister António Guterres, secretary-general of the U.N., uses the pandemic to call for a form of world government that supersedes the nation-state. He is also on record as opposing the “hegemonic temptations” of China, Iran, and the E.U. However, he wants to maintain a strong NATO, which Portugal joined as a founding member in 1949 (under Salazar).
He has taken a combative stance against those who would import racial identity politics from the United States. This summer, he organized several demonstrations in Portugal around the slogans “Portugal is not Racist,” “All Lives Matter.”
In truth, ethno-religious issues concern disgruntled Portuguese less than governance issues. Islamist terrorism has so far spared the country, and non-white and mixed race citizens have integrated well there—perhaps better than almost anywhere else in Europe.
He promotes both classical liberal economic policy and traditional social values. He advocates a range of measures to increase the birth rate, currently the second lowest in Europe. He wishes to restrict the availability of abortion rather than ban it and is opposed to restoring the death penalty (stances that he admits place him in a minority within Chega). He has not taken a strong stand on gay marriage. But he has vowed to resist if Portugal caves to the vocal transgender lobby. In parliament last year, he declared: “You can change sex at 16 but you can’t go to a bullfight! Doesn’t this country have things the wrong way round?”
More than once his political adversaries and their media allies have branded Ventura a would-be successor to Salazar. He has swatted away the charge, stating that unlike Salazar he is keen on economic development and firmly believes in elections and freedom of speech. But, he says, “I hope to end my days like him—poor and incorruptible.”
“We need to leave behind the ghosts of the past,” he insists, and it seems that growing numbers are prepared to take him at face value. Chega’s stronghold is not in the once deeply pious rural north that produced the austere Salazar. It is in the south long known for its anti-clericalism, which was in 1975 the epicenter of the revolution.
The bulk of his supporters are in Lisbon, in the Algarve with its currently moribund tourist industry, and in the in-between province of Alentejo where the communists once reigned supreme. (Evangelical churches in these regions have channelled a lot of votes to his party.)
Ventura’s own background is not wholly unlike Salazar’s. The son of a bicycle shop owner in a well-to-do Lisbon suburb, he trained to be a priest for several years in his late teens and excelled scholastically at home and abroad, obtaining a PhD at the age of 28. Though Ventura is Catholic, he has not made his faith part of his political platform.
He has a strong belief in private enterprise and says he hopes for the day when a young person from Switzerland or Britain, when asked where he’d like to go and live and work, will say Portugal. He believes that Portugal has a range of advantages that could make it the “El Dorado” of Europe, and is angry with a lethargic and inbred political elite for frittering away these advantages.
The political elite fears this irreverent and self-confident popular tribune because he cannot be bought off and has an anti-system message that many can appreciate. What to do with the wily and unpredictable André Ventura is likely to increasingly preoccupy those parties now losing legitimacy and viewing the future with apprehension.
Tom Gallagher is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Bradford and the author of Salazar: The Dictator Who Refused to Die. First Things, 28-1-2021