Portuguese presidential elections: incumbent victory masks mood of anger

On 24 January, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the independent Portuguese presidential candidate, was re-elected in a landslide victory, with 61 percent of the vote. Whilst he was the centre-right candidate, he had the tacit support of the ruling Socialist Party. The election has attracted some interest internationally because of the fact that Chega, the far-right party, won 12 percent of the vote, up from around 1 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2019. The real winner in these elections, however, was not Marcelo, but ‘none of the above’.

The presidency in Portugal is usually a symbolic position but – with the power to dissolve parliament, call general elections and appoint prime ministers – it acts as a reserve weapon for the ruling class.

The turnout of only 40 percent marked a record low in Presidential elections. It is true that the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in this. However, the main reason for the low turnout is due to the fact that most people were not enthused by any of the candidates.

The truth is that, beneath the surface, there is deep anger, politicisation and a desperate desire for some sort of change. However, when no candidate offers any alternative, this mood will not be revealed by an election. So, whilst presidential elections can be a useful barometer to gain a snapshot into the mood of the population, on their own, they do not allow us to fully understand the real balance of forces in society.

“National unity”, Chega and the limitations of the left parties

Another element that must be taken into account is that, alongside the subterranean anger, there is also a certain level of fatigue, confusion, demoralisation and fear. In any national crisis, like wars, the rhetoric of “national unity” can have some impact. Because of the crisis, people want to believe that their leaders will be able to solve the problem.

Marcelo presents himself as a figure of national unity when in reality he is acting as a political stabiliser in the interests of capital. However, the main reason he is able to do this is due to the failures of the left parties. Neither the Left Bloc [Bloco de Esquerda, BE] nor the Communist Party [PCP] candidates presented a real anti-capitalist alternative to Marcelo. For example, Marisa Matias, the BE candidate, said that people (the working class) must comply with the necessary protective measures in relation to the pandemic, without mentioning how they will be supported in order to comply with these. Rather than making the working class pay, the call should be for “work or full pay”. However, instead of presenting an alternative, she asks the government to just invent something.

There is therefore some parallel to be drawn with the current leadership of the UK Labour Party. When the UK Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces new measures, the Labour leaders say “yes, we completely agree with these measures, but you should be doing a little more”. This is not a real opposition.

This situation creates the perfect opportunity for André Ventura, the leader of Chega. He seems like the only candidate who really attacks the government for failing to deal with the crisis. This demagogue uses xenophobic and sexist language, but when he calls the ruling Socialist Party [PS] an “open sewer”, he is able to appeal to a certain strata of the Portuguese population, who feel left behind by the political establishment.

André Ventura Image Agencia LUSAThe lack of any serious solutions from the left creates the perfect opportunity for André Ventura, leader of the far-right Chega / Image: Agencia LUSA

The increased support for Chega certainly needs to be looked at carefully, but it must not be used as a means to absolve the parties of the left of all criticism. The main reason for Chega’s increased popularity amongst a small layer of Portuguese society is the lack of any alternative to the status quo.

Ultimately, Chega received just under 500,000 votes in these elections. This is certainly a huge leap, but it still constitutes a relatively small part of the electorate. Equally, as we saw both in the UK after the rise of UKIP, in France with the National Front or with Trump in the US, this rise could provoke a much greater opposite reaction in some of the most advanced layers of workers and young people in Portugal. This process has been delayed somewhat by the nature of the current crisis and the pandemic, but this means that the movement will be even more explosive when it does arrive.

If properly mobilised, the Portuguese working class is more than capable of sweeping away any challenge from the extreme right. This very action would shake the foundations of the state of which Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is a pillar. Only an independent, working-class movement that shows a real alternative can cut away any support Chega has received.

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