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Portugal Had Little Appetite for the Far Right, Until Chega

WorldEuropePortugal Had Little Appetite for the Far Right, Until Chega

The sun-soaked Algarve region on Portugal’s Southern coast is a place where guitar-strumming backpackers gather by fragrant orange trees and digital nomads hunt for laid-back vibes. It is not exactly what comes to mind when one envisions a stronghold of far-right political sentiment.

But it is in the Algarve region where the anti-establishment Chega party finished first in national elections this month, both unsettling Portuguese politics and injecting new anxiety throughout the European establishment. Nationwide, Chega received 18 percent of the vote.

“It’s a strong signal for Europe and for the world,” said João Paulo da Silva Graça, a freshly elected Chega lawmaker, sitting at the party’s new Algarve headquarters as tourists asked for vegan custard tarts at a bakery downstairs. “Our values must prevail.”

Chega, which means “enough” in Portuguese, is the first hard-right party to gain ground in the political scene in Portugal since 1974 and the end of the nationalist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. Its formula for success mixed promises of greater law and order with tougher immigration measures and an appeal to economic resentments.

Chega’s breakthrough has presented Portugal as the latest version of a now familiar quandary for Europe, where the inroads of hard-right parties have made it increasingly difficult for mainstream competitors to avoid them.

The leader of Portugal’s center-right coalition, which won the election, has refused to ally with Chega, but experts say the result is likely to be an unstable minority government that may not last long.

Chega showed once again that taboos that had kept hard-right parties out of power, foremost the long shadow of a right-wing dictatorship from last century, were falling. Today the hard right has made gains in Italy, Spain and Germany, among other places.

Portugal had been considered the exception. It emerged from the Salazar dictatorship as a progressive society that supported liberal drug laws and showed little appetite for the far right. In recent years it became a booming tourist destination, flush with foreign investment, expatriates and a growing economy.

Even so, this month more than a million Portuguese cast what many saw as a protest vote for Chega.

The Socialist and the mainstream conservative Social Democratic party in recent decades have presided over a painful financial crisis and tough austerity period. But even in the country’s recent economic upturn, many have felt left out, anxious and forgotten.

Huge numbers of young Portuguese are leaving the country. Many of those who stay work for low salaries that have not kept up with inflation and left them priced out of an unaffordable housing market. Public services are under stress.

Chega campaigned promising higher salaries and better conditions for workers, who the party said had been impoverished by a greedy elite. It fought against mixed-gender bathrooms in schools and restitutions for former colonies.

A corruption investigation into the handling of clean energy projects, which brought down the Socialist government last year, handed Chega another talking point with which to attack the ruling class.

The party’s message struck a chord with many Portuguese who did not vote before and attracted young voters through powerful social media outreach. It also resonated with voters in Algarve who had voted reliably for the Socialist Party in the past.

“Here we have to work, work, work and we get nothing,” said Pedro Bonanca, a Chega voter who drives tourists on a boat to the fishing island of Culatra, off the Algarve coast.

“When I ask old people why they vote the Socialist Party, the only thing they can say is that they took us out of the dictatorship,” said Mr. Bonanca, 25. “But I don’t know about that. It was a long time ago.”

The top of his Instagram search bar featured André Ventura, the charismatic former soccer commentator who once trained as a priest before founding Chega in 2019.

In earlier campaigns, Chega used the slogan “God, Homeland, Family, Work,” similar to the Salazar dictatorship’s “God, Homeland, Family.” Before the recent election, Chega promised a mix of social policies that experts described as unrealistic, including plans to increase the minimum wage and pensions while also cutting taxes.

“Chega became a sort of catchall party of all anxieties,” said António Costa Pinto, a political scientist with the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.

In the Algarve region, Chega appealed to underpaid waiters with unstable jobs, priced out of their hometowns or forced to emigrate. The party’s message resonated with aging fishermen who had to keep working to make a living. It spoke to farmers who said that they felt forsaken and that the government had prioritized watering golf courses despite looming drought.

“If we die, it’s because of them,” Pedro Cabrita, a farmer, said of the government. “My vote for Chega is a protest vote,” he said as he gazed anxiously at his orange grove, which he feared might dry out this summer.

In Olhão, an impoverished tourist town where Chega won nearly 30 percent of the vote, José Manuel Fernandes, a fishmonger, wondered why, despite the fact that Portugal is in the European Union, he could not aspire to the lifestyle of the German or French tourists around him.

“In the summer I see couples having a good time here, living in camper vans,” said Mr. Fernandes, who voted for Chega, as he cleaned a giant cuttlefish. “I have wanted to go on vacation abroad for 30 years,” he added, “but that moment never came.”

Economists say Portugal, which started from a lower economic point when it joined the European Union in 1986, has made progress but not the kind of productivity gains needed to catch up to its wealthier European partners. Instead it remains a relative bargain for European tourists and retirees, while many Portuguese feel increasingly plundered.

In the seaside town of Albufeira, as British bachelorette squads in blinking bunny ears cruised the streets, Tiago Capela Rito, a 30-year-old waiter, closed the cocktail bar where he worked. Despite working since he was 15, he still lives with his mother because he cannot afford his own apartment, he said.

He had never voted before, but he voted for Chega. “Ventura is telling us that we don’t have to leave the country to survive,” said Mr. Rito, who in the off season juggles construction and kitchen jobs, “that we can stay here and have a life.”

Down the road, Luís Araújo, 61, a waiter who also voted for Chega, said his son, 25, made more than triple his salary at a restaurant in Dublin.

“Our young people leave and these guys stay here,” he said of the influx of workers from Nepal and India who have arrived to fill low-paying jobs.

Though the numbers of immigrants arriving in Portugal has been smaller than in Italy or Spain, Mr. Ventura has cast a recent influx of South Asian immigrants as a threat.

“The European Union is being demographically replaced by the children of immigrants,” he said in Parliament in 2022, evoking the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. “Nobody wants that in 20 years Europe will be mostly made up by individuals from other continents.”

For some, Chega’s rise has brought back old fears, especially for members of the Roma community, one of Mr. Ventura’s early targets.

For some older Portuguese, too, the specter of the hard right’s revival has been unsettling.

As he cleaned his nets from small crabs and cuttlefish, Vitór Silvestre, 67, a fisherman on Culatra, said he still remembered being fearful to talk to the cobbler or even friends during the dictatorship years, never knowing who could be an informant.

“And now we are voting for the far right again?” he asked.

Tiago Carrasco contributed reporting from Faro, Portugal.

#Portugal #Appetite #Chega

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