Excluding election-winning populists merely acts as rocket fuel for their poll ratings: This is what Portugal’s Luis Montenegro is about to learn

The leader of the Democratic Alliance (AD) coalition and President of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) Luis Montenegro delivering a victory speech during the election night of the legislative elections 2024 at Party headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal, 11 March 2024. EPA-EFE/TIAGO PETINGA


Portuguese Prime Minister-designate Luis Montenegro faced a hard decision after narrowly winning last month’s elections.

Commanding only 80 seats in the 230-member parliament, he could either join forces with the national populist Chega or his party’s traditional foes, the Socialists, to obtain a working majority. His apparent decision to rely on the Socialists will likely come back to haunt him.

Montenegro’s quandary arose due to his party’s inability to capitalise on his nation’s discontent. The Socialists were unpopular because of multiple corruption investigations that arose during their eight years in power. As leader of the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, Montenegro should have been able to win going away.

Instead, the populist Chega captured the desire for change. Led by the brash and charismatic Andre Ventura, it more than quadrupled its number of seats, rising from 12 to 50.

Montenegro’s Democratic Alliance (AD) – a joint ticket formed with two small Rightist parties – lost vote share from the 2022 election and only gained three seats. The AD almost lost to the Socialists, who managed to win 78 seats even as their vote share collapsed by nearly a third.

Montenegro could have turned to Ventura and formed a stable coalition not dissimilar to that often formed in Scandinavian countries.

But he had campaigned actively against that during the campaign, apparently hoping that excluding a coalition with Chega would force voters who really wanted change to turn to him. That strategy’s abject failure should have convinced him to change course and hope to tame Chega by giving them governing responsibility.

That’s what the Scandinavian centre-Right parties have learnt. Norway’s Conservatives, for example, have effectively made the populist Freedom Party their smaller ally, giving them important cabinet seats and stanching their popular support.

Conservative parties in Denmark, Finland, and now Sweden have all found that treating populist parties as legitimate parts of the national discourse helps stabilise the country while also shifting policy to the right.

That’s not the course Montenegro seems to have chosen. Last week AD and the Socialists cut a deal to elect the parliament’s speaker. Both parties agreed that a conservative would hold the chair for two years, to be followed by a Socialist for the next two years.

That arrangement was, of course, opposed by Ventura, who said Chega would now be mostly an opposition party.

That’s likely to work in Chega’s interest. The Socialists are not in government, but they clearly will use their tacit support to obtain concessions from Montenegro’s minority government. That means that Chega will be the only large party free to criticise the government at will.

It’s not likely that the Socialists will let Montenegro make too many dramatic changes, lest they rue his possible success at charting a different course. That means Ventura can now credibly claim to be the voice of an unhappy people upset at a ruling duopoly.

This type of arrangement is how Giorgia Meloni rose from obscurity to become Italy’s Prime Minister. Her Brothers of Italy party won only a little more than 4 percent in 2018’s parliamentary vote. She nevertheless played the long game, keeping Brothers out of government when the two populist winners, Five Star Movement and Lega, formed a government.

Brothers also stayed out of government when the populist government was replaced by a centre-Left coalition in 2019, and she even kept Brothers out of a 2021 government that contained all other parliamentary parties.

The result was that Italians who wanted real change shifted toward the only party that could plausibly deliver it, Meloni’s Brothers. It easily finished first in 2022’s elections with 26 per cent of the vote and now dominates a cabinet with its once-stronger center-Right competitors.

This is what usually happens with grand coalitions. Germany’s CDU-SPD grand coalition failed to halt populism’s rise there, while the parties in Denmark’s current grand coalition have lost vote share in the polls to other parties to their Left and Right.

Similar establishment-dominated cross-party consensus governments in Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium have also facilitated rather than halted populist parties’ advance.

Montenegro should recognize that a crucial set of Portuguese want real change, not a perpetuation of the status quo. That desire is identical to those expressed across Europe for the past decade and will not be allayed by temporary grand coalitions.

It can only be ameliorated by actually delivering some of the change these voters demand. That, however, is exactly what grand coalitions are intended to prevent.

Perhaps Montenegro will prove more adaptable and wilier than he appears. If not, don’t be surprised if Chega becomes Portugal’s leading centre-Right party in the near future.