Understanding the belated rise of Portugal’s new far right

August 21, 2023
Left Bloc Portugal Jorge Costa
Left Bloc leader Jorge Costa (inset) said: 'We answer the far right by finding the largest unity in the movements ... and underlining our opposition to PS neoliberalism'. Photos: bloco.org

In Part 2 of our interview, Left Bloc leader Jorge Costa discusses the recent rise of the far-right Chega (Enough) party in Portugal with Green Left’s Dick Nichols. (Read Part 1 of the interview here.)

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Chega is a late arrival in the wave of far-right reaction in Europe. What features does it share with other far-right forces? Why did it emerge so belatedly? Does it have support in the state apparatus, judiciary, armed forces and police?

For many years there was a party, the Party of the Social and Democratic Centre (CDS-PP), which was kind of a gathering together of the remnants of the dictatorship, political personnel from its last years, with close connections with the church and sections of the bourgeoisie, sections of the employers’ confederation, etc.

At its electoral peak, CDS-PP got the same score that Chega gets today, around 12%. CDS-PP disappeared from the political landscape and its cadres are now orphans. They are not in Chega — they did not become politicians for the far right.

But the far right absorbed the popular vote this party had, so you can see this as a kind of aggiornamento [updating] from the grassroots of the right wing, from its voting base.

When you note the political personnel of these new ultra-right political parties — not only Chega but also Iniciativa Liberal (IL, Liberal Initiative) — they come from the middle cadres of the traditional right-wing parties.

So, rather than Nazi and fascist groups getting parliamentary representation and growing, we have sectors from the previously existing right-wing formations fragmenting and reorganising, adopting elements of the radicalised right — of Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, and also of the ultra-liberal right from all over Europe.

In the case of Chega, we should also note its organic fragility. For example, one-third of its elected members on local council executives resigned from the party last year. Not for any specific political difference, but because of clashing personalities and personal ambitions. Also, the last congresses of the party were ruled to be irregular by the Constitutional Court.

So, this is an organisation that is still very weak, which still gets its representatives and candidates from people with very loose connections with the party itself, and that reflects its lack of real social presence. Yes, Chega is very visible in parliament. It has a very charismatic leader, André Ventura (who came from the [liberal-conservative] Social Democratic Party), but it is a very loose organisation with very little capacity for street mobilisation.

The only sector with real far-right influence in its organised ranks is the police. In no other sector, in no other expression of protest, does Chega have anything comparable, not even in massively mobilised sectors, like teachers and nurses. Nowhere else does the far right have any capacity for mobilisation.

Nonetheless, the far right still connects with the traditional themes of the Portuguese right: anti-Roma racism, colonial nostalgia and Salazarism, the normalisation of the fascist dictatorship and the Colonial War viewed as an heroic epic. All that goes with macho nostalgia and a very strong rejection of feminism. These are the main features of the Portuguese far-right narrative, as represented by Chega.

Then there is IL, another radicalised party of the right, but which is very different. IL is an ultra-liberal party, inspired by Hayekism [based on Friedrich Hayek's ideas], one of many European parties of this type. An extremist liberal party, anti-Marxist but not ultra-conservative, with an agenda focused on economic issues like lowering tax rates.

IL has a high-income support base and is much more concentrated in wealthy inner-city milieux. Its typical voter is younger and more educated. It does not express xenophobic and racist ideas openly and refuses to make them part of its agenda.

Socialist Party (PS) Prime Minister António Costa aims to build the PS vote by splitting the right and frightening left voters into seeking shelter with PS against Chega’s rise. How does the Left Bloc counter this tactic?

The main way that the Left Bloc deals with this is by explaining that Chega is a “federation of discontent” — discontent with neoliberal policy and its results in wages, health, education, etc — despite its lack of policies to answer these needs, or even a more radical version of neoliberal policies. This is the direct result of the bad politics of the socialist government.

So, we answer the far right by finding the largest unity in the movements that resist fascism, racism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia, but also by underlining our opposition to PS neoliberalism and by responding on the terrain of alternative economic and social policy.

This orientation coincides with how protest has developed in the first year and a half of the PS’s absolute majority. Every demonstration that has emerged comes with left-wing demands: those of the teachers, of the health workers, of the workers in the legal system; the demands of the feminists, the demands of LGBTIQ+ movement, the demands of young people who are fighting for housing.

They all connect with the left and with our left demands. They have no connection with, and there is no presence of, the far right in these demonstrations. This is very, very important because the opposition in the streets to the Costa government is not a far-right opposition at all. It is mainly led by social movements and trade unions, which connect directly with the left-wing parties and the left-wing opposition, either with the Portuguese Communist Party or the Left Bloc.

That is the way we can create a left-wing pole of attraction that can win over those social sectors in the working class who are in shock because of the neoliberal policies of the PS and could be more vulnerable to far-right demagogy.

In the Spanish state, support for far-right party Vox, which mainly comes from the rich and very rich suburbs, is also concentrated among Spanish speakers in the poorest and most abandoned Mediterranean coastal regions with large migrant worker populations. Is the Portuguese situation similar? What does the Left Bloc propose to counter the influence of Chega?

The characteristics of immigration in Portugal are quite different from Spain. Here, Chega is closely connected to the interests of our intensive monoculture in agriculture, which is very much dependent on immigrant labour.

So, Chega has shifted its message more to themes like Romaphobia, corruption in politics, ultra-conservatism around LGBTIQ+ and feminist concerns, and opposition to euthanasia and abortion. These are the main issues along which the far right tries to build its identity, more than with a straightforward racist and anti-immigrant stance, which would, at a certain point, clash with the interests of some of its own supporters and financiers.

Also, Chega voters are different from their Vox counterparts. The typical Chega voter is male, middle-aged to elderly, and from the popular classes. As I said, the more highly educated, urban right-wing voter who might vote Vox in Spain tends to vote IL in Portugal.

[Abridged and edited from a longer interview at links.org.au.]

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