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This Country Seemed Immune To Far-Right Politics. Then Came A Corruption Scandal.

A billboard for the far-right Chega party looms over the square outside the Porto-Campanhã train station Portugal's second-largest city.
A billboard for the far-right Chega party looms over the square outside the Porto-Campanhã train station Portugal's second-largest city.

A billboard for the far-right Chega party looms over the square outside the Porto-Campanhã train station Portugal's second-largest city.

PORTO, Portugal ― Everywhere you go, André Ventura is watching.

He’s outside the train station in this hilly city on the northern coast. He’s near the onramps to the highway. He’s also in Lisbon, the ancient limestone capital three hours south of here, locking eyes from the traffic circles. His message ― scrawled out in giant letters on his campaign billboards ― is terse but clear. To his left are four black-and-white visages of Portugal’s leading politicians, with a giant red X over each face. Ventura is more than three times larger, stubbled and stoic, in full color.

“Shame!” reads the hashtag atop the much larger text: “Portugal needs a cleansing.”

It’s the sort of rhetoric you might expect from an opposition party that is competing for voters in the wake of a corruption scandal that in early November brought down this country’s long-serving center-left Socialist government and led to a snap election scheduled for March 10. What’s unusual is the kind of politics Ventura represents.

His upstart party Chega (Portuguese for “enough”) is the first major far-right party to gain purchase on the western edge of Europe in the nearly 50 years since Portugal returned to democracy.

In Western Europe’s poorest country, where wages are stagnant and housing costs are soaring, political analysts say voters who see the two traditional parties ― the center-left Socialists and the center-right Social Democrats ― as too similar are increasingly drawn to Chega’s anti-establishment bombast and nostalgia for colonial glories.

And the party stands to gain now as the ruling Socialist government collapses over an investigation into whether regulators made back-room deals to favor foreign companies seeking to dig lithium mines, build solar-powered data centers and generate hydrogen fuel that served the administration’s climate goals.

“People don’t vote for a party like Chega out of any kind of ideological conviction,” said Lisbon Mayor Carlos Moedas, a Social Democrat who, as the head of the country’s largest population center, has pushed for political moderation. “They vote because they’re tired. They are tired of politicians because they don’t believe politicians are solving their problems. It’s more about people being tired of politics.”

Though Portugal recovered from its 2011 debt crisis successfully enough that commentators began referring to the country as an economic model of “sardine capitalism,” polls suggest the nation still hasn’t bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. In a recent survey commissioned by media outlets and the universities, 69% of Portuguese said the economy worsened for them over the past year, with just 6% saying it got better. After years of notching mostly positive views of the country’s economic direction in the annual nationwide poll, negative opinion skyrocketed in early 2020 and has remained high since. 

Outlook on other societal issues is similarly dim. A September survey showed 90% of Portuguese adults viewed the country’s shortage of affordable housing as a severe problem, with nearly two-thirds of that majority indicating that they were “very concerned.” Asked in a separate poll about climate change, 83% said they expected to suffer water shortages in the near future, with an additional 71% predicting that food supplies would also soon dwindle. 

Marine Le Pen (right), of the French far-right party Rassemblement National; Andre Ventura (center), leader of the Portuguese far-right party Chega; and Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, hold a joint press conference Nov. 24 in Lisbon as far-right leaders of Europe show their support for Chega.
Marine Le Pen (right), of the French far-right party Rassemblement National; Andre Ventura (center), leader of the Portuguese far-right party Chega; and Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, hold a joint press conference Nov. 24 in Lisbon as far-right leaders of Europe show their support for Chega.

Marine Le Pen (right), of the French far-right party Rassemblement National;  Andre Ventura (center), leader of the Portuguese far-right party Chega; and Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany, hold a joint press conference Nov. 24 in Lisbon as far-right leaders of Europe show their support for Chega.

Voters feeling the squeeze and seeking someone to blame can look to a parliament where 1 out of every 5 members has disclosed accepting payment for outside activities that Transparency International said “seem incompatible with their legislative duties,” creating what the Berlin-based watchdog’s local chapter called “the risk of politicians prioritising their employers’ interests over the common good.” 

While all but one of Chega’s sitting lawmakers have at least one declared outside interest, the party is small, relatively new and politically fringe. By contrast, its members sit on fewer boards or consult less frequently for outside companies than do lawmakers from the two traditional parties. Conveniently to drive home Chega’s message of being less corrupt than the establishment, Ventura is the lone partisan unencumbered by any other active associations with any institutions except for the Portuguese Parliament.

In 2019, the year Chega formed, the party won one seat out of 230 in the Parliament. In 2022, the party upped its seat count to 12. Polls now show Chega in third place. With a little over three months to go until the election, support is trending upward. 

Like neighboring Spain, Portugal lost its democracy to fascism during the Great Depression. Unlike Germany and Italy, whose right-wing dictators fell during World War II, the Iberian nations’ regimes stayed neutral in the conflict and remained in power until the 1970s. With such recent memories of secret police and tortured dissenters, voters in both nations resisted the allure of the far-right populism gaining steam across the continent, from France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to Italy and now even Germany. 

The immunity has worn off in the past four years. In Spain, the far-right Vox ― whose xenophobic, climate-denying, anti-feminist leaders openly pine for Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s iron fist ― went from nothing to the third-largest party in Parliament in 2019 on the back of anger over the ruling Socialist government’s alliances with separatists who seek independence for regions like Catalonia and Basque country, home to culturally and linguistically distinct minority populations. 

Ethnic minorities seeking to carve up the homeland isn’t a problem in linguistically homogeneous Portugal. Nor is opposition to the European Union, something that has propelled the far-right to power in France and the U.K.

The move comes as the far-right also grows and unifies elsewhere in Europe. The Netherlands’ far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who vowed to end immigration, won the national election last week. Italy’s Giorgia Meloni rose through the ranks of a fascist youth group that defended dictator Benito Mussolini’s legacy to become the country’s first female prime minister last year. France’s Marine Le Pen inherited her father’s Holocaust-denying party to come in second place in the last two presidential elections. And Spain’s Santiago Abascal has sought to capitalize on the chaotic anti-government protests in his country this month in part by appealing to Americans through an appearance on right-wing commentator Tucker Carlson’s show on the X social media platform

“In Portugal, as in other European countries, the left has reached the end of its cycle... trust in us [the far-right] is growing, in Austria, in Germany, in France, in Portugal,” Le Pen told reporters in Lisbon last Friday, when she came to join a news conference alongside Ventura. Chega hosted other stalwarts of Europe’s far-right for a summit in Europe’s second-oldest capital last April. 

Ventura, a former sports commentator proud of flouting political correctness, first rose to fame in 2017 by accusing Portugal’s Roma community ― who make up less than 1% of the country’s population ― of being “addicted” to welfare and of frequently breaking the law. 

Demonstrators in Lisbon raise their fists during a Nov. 11 protest by workers' unions demanding, among other things, an increase of salaries and pensions. Days earlier, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa announced he's dissolving the nation's Parliament and calling an early election two days after Prime Minister António Costa resigned amid a corruption scandal.

Demonstrators in Lisbon raise their fists during a Nov. 11 protest by workers' unions demanding, among other things, an increase of salaries and pensions. Days earlier, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa announced he's dissolving the nation's Parliament and calling an early election two days after Prime Minister António Costa resigned amid a corruption scandal.

Long called “Gypsies” by Europeans who wrongly believed the ethnic group came from Egypt, the Roma (or Romani), who consider the “Gypsy” label a slur, have frequently been the target of racist stereotypes that claim they are itinerant, prone to theft and uneducated, according to the Rroma Foundation, a nonprofit founded in the mid-1990s. That bigotry has led to repeated acts of violence over the centuries, including the Nazi-led genocide of more than one-quarter of Europe’s Roma population during the Holocaust. 

Last year, Ventura proposed special COVID-19 restrictions for Roma people, a move he defended to Agence France-Presse as seeking “to make it understood that there is a community in Portugal that has a lot of difficulty in respecting the rules of confinement.”  

Chega did not respond to multiple emails requesting an interview with Ventura. 

“Chega does make statements that are really objectionable from the standpoint of anyone who is opposed to xenophobia and other forms of ethnic or group hatred,” said Robert Fishman, a professor of Iberian political science and sociology at Spain’s Carlos III University in Madrid. “They’ve had some really negative things to say about the Roma, and that’s a very classic thing in Iberia.” 

In June, the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism listed Chega among 13 hate groups in Portugal, a list that also included the local chapter of the Proud Boys gang and openly neo-Nazi organizations. The U.S.-based nonprofit said the party “particularly has worked to poison the national discourse with racist, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, and anti-Roma rhetoric.” 

“The fast rise and influence of Chega is a reminder that no country is ever truly immune to exclusionary, demagogic forces, and even tiny far-right parties can quickly expand their base of support,” Wendy Via, the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism’s co-founder, said in a news release.

Though Chega doesn’t call for an end to immigration in a country where the number of new people coming only recently eclipsed how many Portuguese were leaving, the party wants tighter restrictions on who crosses its borders. Some officials from Chega drove home this point last month after the Tunisian gunman who killed two Swedes in Brussels in the name of the “Islamic State” was found to have come through Portugal.

“He doesn’t come from the extreme right that has always been irrelevant in Portuguese politics; he comes from the center right,” said António Costa Pinto, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon. “The main topics of the radical right in Portugal are security, crime and corruption.”

Jose Fernandes, president of the Techari association, which represents Roma people in his Lisbon District town of Camarate, kisses his daughter Vanessa at a family lunch on Jan. 15, 2022. Fernandes says Chega is inciting hatred and retaliation against Roma children in schools.
Jose Fernandes, president of the Techari association, which represents Roma people in his Lisbon District town of Camarate, kisses his daughter Vanessa at a family lunch on Jan. 15, 2022. Fernandes says Chega is inciting hatred and retaliation against Roma children in schools.

Jose Fernandes, president of the Techari association, which represents Roma people in his Lisbon District town of Camarate, kisses his daughter Vanessa at a family lunch on Jan. 15, 2022. Fernandes says Chega is inciting hatred and retaliation against Roma children in schools.

“My country is beautiful, the weather, the gastronomy, the culture are all phenomenal,” a taxi driver in Lisbon, who declined to give his name, said one afternoon in mid-November. “But the politics is a mess.” 

The cabbie, in his mid-50s, said he wasn’t a very political person, but when asked about Chega, he lit up. 

“I like them very much. They speak directly. And they’re different, they have different ideas,” he said. “A lot of people I know like them very much, too.” 

Part of Chega’s appeal has been striking a more moderate stance than other parties on Europe’s far right. Unlike France’s Le Pen, the Netherlands’ Wilders or Britain’s Brexit-thumping Nigel Farage, Ventura has generally shied away from calls to leave the European Union and instead promoted a more measured message focused on rooting out government corruption and supporting the police. 

Mohammed, a Bangladeshi immigrant in his mid-20s who gave only his first name, said he hadn’t experienced much racism or Islamophobia since moving to Portugal a few years ago. But 12-hour shifts in a fruit processing plant left little time to learn the language, and he said police officers have refused to help him because he couldn’t speak Portuguese. 

Now working part time as an Uber driver, he said native cabbies “are upset because this industry has become almost all Asian.” 

“We work hard,” Mohammed said. “We contribute. We pay taxes.” 

José Chagis, 49, said he voted for Chega in the last election because he said the economic malaise and brain drain of doctors and other professionals to other parts of Europe showed the need for some change that the two major parties could not deliver. He said he had to work two jobs in food service and as an Uber driver to make rent and pay for his kids’ tuition. He rejected claims that the party was racist, seeing it as propaganda from the political establishment, and he pointed out that at least one high-ranking Chega official is Black. 

The Social Democrats “say Chega is racist and xenophobic, but it’s not true. One of the party’s founders is a Black guy,” Chagis said. “They’re just very afraid to lose their ability to do business via corruption.” 

Asked about the Roma, however, Chagis said too many receive government subsidies to which he believes they aren’t entitled.

It’s an example of what Jose Fernandes, a restaurant owner and the head of the nonprofit Techari representing Roma people in the Lisbon suburb of Loures, described as the “hidden racism” that Chega revealed. Despite being fined in 2020 for racist comments, Ventura delivered a speech before Parliament the following year in which he railed against the Roma, and there was no censure from the other parties, Fernandes said.

“The other parties say they’re democratic but they did not do or oppose anything that was said about the Roma community ― this is the constant struggle Roma people have lived and continue to live,” Fernandes said via email. “This is also their fault. We have lived in this country for five centuries and we’re still in the migratory phase.”

Chega, he said, “has nothing to give this country other than racial hatred.”

This story was updated to include an additional quote from Jose Fernandes.  

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