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Portugal goes to the polls amid record Covid-19 numbers

Far-right Chega party vying to be the country’s third force in parliament

Amid record-breaking Covid-19 infection rates, Portugal will hold a tight-fought general election this Sunday in which the far right is expected to make gains.

Voters go to the polls to choose a new government after the Socialist-led administration of António Costa collapsed in November.

The vote comes just Covid numbers hit new highs: on Thursday, 65,706 new cases were registered, a record daily figure, with 41 deaths. In January alone, there have been more cases of coronavirus – nearly 1 million – than in the whole of 2021.

However, the number of hospital patients with Covid is much lower than at the same time last year and 90 per cent of Portuguese have been vaccinated.

Costa's Socialists have seen their early lead in the polls slide as the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) of Rui Rio has gained ground

The government has said that people infected with Covid, who it estimates will total around 600,000 by Sunday, will be able to vote in a special 6pm-7pm time slot. Mask use is obligatory in indoor public spaces and infected voters have to avoid public transport when travelling to cast their ballot. Justice and interior minister Francisca Van Dunem said that she believed the “historically exemplary behaviour” of the Portuguese will ensure the day goes smoothly.

But the politics of this election are arguably much less predictable than the logistics.

Costa's Socialists have seen their early lead in the polls slide as the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) of Rui Rio has gained ground. With neither likely to secure a majority on its own, post-electoral alliances could be crucial in forming a new administration.

“For the first time since I can remember, we are going into an election without a probable, expected winner,” noted political commentator Maria Joao Marques, of Público newspaper. “The PSD has as good a chance of winning as the initial favourite, the Socialists.”

Costa became prime minister in 2015, forming a government with the parliamentary support of the Left Bloc and Communist Party. The three-way alliance, nicknamed a geringonça (or "contraption"), rolled back the austerity imposed in the wake of a 2011 EU bailout. They continued their partnership after Costa won the 2019 election, but a row over the 2022 budget has triggered this ballot.

Given the fine margins, the performance of smaller parties could be key given their potential role in forming the new government.

Chega has targeted the Gypsy community and it calls for chemical castration for rapists and paedophiles

Polls suggest that the far-right Chega party, which won a single seat in the last election, is vying with the Left Bloc to be the country’s third force in parliament. On the campaign trail, Chega’s leader, André Ventura, has used the slogan “God, the fatherland, family and work”, an adaptation of the motto of the right-wing dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.

For many this has confirmed the extremist status of his party, which has focused much of its attention on those who it sees as unwarranted beneficiaries of state welfare.

“We are a country of work,” Ventura said early in the campaign. “And when they say that we are an extremist party that is why: because we don’t want to continue to give to those who never do a thing while not giving a minimum of dignity to those who do work.”

With a relatively small number of migrants arriving in Portugal in recent years compared to its southern European neighbours, immigration has not been a major political issue. However, Chega has targeted the Gypsy community and it calls for chemical castration for rapists and paedophiles.

With such policies striking a chord with certain voters, Chega is expected to make substantial gains, placing it centre stage during what are likely to be frenzied post-electoral negotiations.

“The right-wing parties are much more pragmatic than the parties on the left,” said André Freire, a political scientist at ISCTE – University Institute of Lisbon. “The big question is whether [the PSD] would include the far-right Chega in a coalition.”

A local precedent has already been set for such an agreement, with Chega’s support allowing the PSD to govern in the Azores region.

On the left, Costa has continued to appeal for voters to give his Socialists an outright majority. However, his party’s chances of remaining in power would appear to lie in resurrecting the geringonça or a variation of it.

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