The populist revolt is about to up-end Portugal’s politics. If the traditional parties seek to exclude Chega, they will only turbo-charge the upstart

The leader of the Chega (Enough) Party, Andre Ventura, gestures during an electoral campaign rally for the country's upcoming legislative elections in Castelo Branco, Portugal, 03 March 2024. EPA-EFE/MIGUEL PEREIRA DA SILVA


Portuguese elections rarely make news outside that country. Sunday’s parliamentary vote will be different if the polls prove correct.

A national populist party, Chega, looks likely to nearly triple its vote from two years ago and emerge as the country’s third largest party. How the two main parties that have alternated in office for decades respond will affect Portugal’s, and perhaps Europe’s, trajectory.

Politics in Portugal took a standard European path after the return of democracy in 1975. Two main parties, the center-Left Socialists (PS) and the center-Right Social Democrats (PSD), have alternated in power since then. They have been sometimes supported, in coalition or through confidence and supply, by minor parties to their Left and Right. This perfectly ordinary politics has persisted for decades.

It is now under threat as new parties have emerged that sit outside the traditional Left-Right axis. Livre and PAN are two green-tinged parties that now have parliamentary representation, drawing support away from the traditional parties on the Left.

The Liberal Initiative (IL), a Rightist-classical liberal party, has sapped the PSD strength, winning 5 percent and 8 seats in the 2022 election. The biggest threat of all, however, comes from Chega.

Founded by André Ventura, a former PSD member in 2019, Chega – Enough! in Portuguese – has remade the traditional political map. It won a single seat in its first election and rose to 7 percent and 12 seats in 2022. Polls currently peg it on around 17 percent of the vote, with a recent poll estimating the party would win between 36 and 41 seats.

Neither of the traditional dominant parties as a result look likely to be able to form a government with the support of its ideological allies.

Both parties’ leaders have responded like their colleagues elsewhere did when a nationalist populist party first emerged: say they won’t work with the newcomer.

PSD leader Luis Montenegro says he won’t work with Venture or Chega, openly stating he wants to form a coalition with the IL.

PS leader Pedro Nuno Santos has repeated the old trope the Left often uses against national populists, contending that Chega is a “threat to democracy”. If we take the leaders’ words at face value, Portugal might have its first grand coalition after the election.

That’s clearly something Santos wants. He has said that PS will support PSD – which is running on a united ticket with other smaller Rightist parties as the Democratic Alliance (AD) – if AD gets the most votes.

Montenegro has not reciprocated, much to Santos’ dismay. A simple overview of the past few years explains why.

The PS has governed since 2015 and has had an absolute majority since 2022. During that time, it has been hit with significant housing price increases and two major corruption cases, one forcing the resignation of two ministers and the other forcing the current snap election as a probe ensnared the PS Prime Minister.

PS has plummeted in the polls and has little chance of winning more than a third of the vote. Its only feasible chance at returning to power is with AD’s support.

AD’s Montenegro, on the other hand, knows that support of the unpopular PS is the kiss of death.

Portuguese clearly want a change, and alliance with the PS won’t provide that. He is trying to force change minded voters to back him by ruling out an alliance with Chega. AD’s slogan is “Believe in Change,” and Montenegro’s hope is that in the polling booth voters will reluctantly back him to get it.

His hope may be dashed by Ventura’s embrace of change and Chega’s untraditional support.

Chega’s slogan is “Clean Up Portugal,” and since the party has never held power there is no history to dispute the claim they will do that.

Polls also show that Chega’s support tends to come from the young, the less educated, and the economically downscale.

These groups have traditionally backed PS or other Left-wing parties and may not be willing to trust an AD-IL alliance whose demographic base of support tilts toward the well-off and the educated.

Montenegro will be in a quandry if current polls reflect Sunday’s results. AD looks set to take the most votes but fall well short of a majority even in combination with IL.

Neither Livre nor PAN look likely to gain enough seats to push a cross-ideological alliance over the top. Montenegro will then finally have to choose: grand coalition with PS or Chega.

He should keep in mind the perils of choosing the grand coalition option. No European grand coalition has yet stemmed the rising populist tide.

Instead, voters who want change drift toward the populists while disappointed ideologues tend to swing towards more purist parties. An AD-PS coalition would likely see Chega, IL, and some of the Left-wing parties grow larger.

Montenegro would be wiser to follow the course adopted by Scandinavian countries. National populist parties there have either been part of center-Right governments or supported them via confidence and supply.

Treating those parties – and their voters – as worthy of respect has tended to halt their rapid rise as the issues they raise become part of normal politics. Responsibility tames these parties, it seems.

The traditional Left-Right political axis arose in the 20th Century because it reflected different approaches to the common problems of the era. This axis is breaking down because it no longer provides real answers to today’s problems.

Eventually, all developed nations will have to accommodate populist parties that have plausible answers to the new problems. Portugal can be a leader in that path if the election’s winner stops demonising populists and starts governing with them.