Tight election pushes Portugal towards instability as far right makes big gains

Snap election was called after corruption scandal led to Socialist prime minister António Costa resigning in November

Portugal’s conservatives are poised to return to government after nearly a decade in opposition, but the country’s politics appear to be heading for a period of instability after the far right quadrupled its parliamentary representation in Sunday’s general election.

In a tight contest, the right-of-centre Democratic Alliance (AD) coalition held off the Socialist Party, which has been governing since 2015.

The snap election was called after a corruption scandal led to Socialist prime minister António Costa, who has not been accused of any crime, resigning in November. Despite the Socialists’ difficulties, Mr Costa’s successor, Pedro Nuno Santos, performed better than expected, trailing the AD by just two seats in the 230-seat national assembly with oversees votes still to be counted. No party secured a majority.

It will now fall to AD candidate Luís Montenegro to form a government. The AD is a right-wing coalition made up of Mr Montenegro’s own Social Democrat Party (PSD), the fellow conservatives of the CDS-People’s Party and the People’s Monarchist Party (PPM).


However, the big uncertainty in the wake of the election is the relationship the next prime minister will have with the far-right Chega (Enough), which increased its seats from 12 to 48.

Many see Chega’s rise as a major parliamentary force as a challenge for Portugal’s young democracy. The latest success of the party, which is just five years old, comes a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, when the Portuguese peacefully overthrew their longstanding dictatorship. Until recently, Portugal had appeared to reject the radical right-wing politics which have flourished elsewhere in southern Europe.

However, low wages and a housing crisis that has priced many Portuguese out of the market have created fertile ground for Chega’s populism.

“Chega is on the far right, as are its ideologues, but most of its voters aren’t,” noted social commentator António Brito Guterres, who identified socioeconomic factors as driving the party’s support.

“Wealth is increasing but it is concentrated in an increasingly narrow pool of society… Chega will not solve this problem. But it is an ally helping [the party’s] expansion.”

A broader disenchantment with the two main parties, which have dominated Portuguese politics for decades, also helped Chega. The Socialists had governed firstly as part of a broad leftist alliance and more recently with a majority secured in 2022. However, both they and the PSD have been caught up in corruption scandals recently.

Chega’s leader, André Ventura, a former law professor and football pundit, has said he is prepared to drop some of his more contentious proposals – such as chemical castration for sex offenders – in order to form a governing partnership.

He warned Mr Montenegro that by not forming a government with Chega he was opening the door to a new Socialist administration.

“Only an irresponsible leader and party would let the Socialists govern when we have in our gift the chance of forming a government of change,” Mr Ventura said.

However, in the wake of his victory, Mr Montenegro reiterated his insistence ahead of the election that he would not govern with the far right, and he appears intent on governing in minority.

“I would never inflict on myself, my party, my country and our democracy the wickedness of breaking my word,” he said.

In February, his conservatives chose to govern in minority in the Azores, instead of forming a coalition with Chega, after narrowly winning a regional election there.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is due to consult with party leaders in the coming days, before appointing a new prime minister after overseas votes have been counted, a process expected to conclude by March 20th.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain