July 24th, 2024

Portugal is in suspense after election produces no clear winner and a surging populist party

By Barry Hatton, The Associated Press on March 10, 2024.

LISBON, Portugal (AP) – Portugal’s political future is hanging in the balance after a general election Sunday, with two moderate mainstream parties closely contesting the race and set to wait weeks for a decision on the winner after an unprecedented surge in support for a populist party.

The center-right Social Democrat-led Democratic Alliance won 77 seats in the 230-seat National Assembly, Portugal’s Parliament, after all votes cast in Portugal were counted.

The center-left Socialist Party, in power the past eight years, got 76 seats.

The deciding votes will come from voters abroad to decide four parliamentary seats after an election night full of suspense. That count could take more than two weeks.

The hard-right Chega (Enough) party captured 48 seats in a milestone result that presented an unprecedented challenge to politics-as-usual, underscoring a drift to the right in the European Union.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

LISBON, Portugal (AP) – An exit poll in Portugal’s general election Sunday suggested that the race was too close to call, with two moderate mainstream parties apparently poised to gather the most votes amid a predicted surge in support for a radical right populist party that could place third.

The poll predicted 29-33% of the vote for the center-right Democratic Alliance, a grouping led by the Social Democratic Party. The center-left Socialist Party gathered 25-29%, the poll indicated.

Populist party Chega (Enough) may have got 14-17% in third place, it suggested, up from 7% at the last election in 2022, in a drift to the political right witnessed elsewhere in the European Union.

Fifteen other parties picked up the rest. Most results were expected by 2300 GMT.

The poll by Portugal’s Catholic University was published by public broadcaster RTP and in previous elections has proved largely accurate.

The Social Democrats and Socialists have alternated in power for decades, but they have never come up against such a strong challenge from a hard-right party.

Social Democrat leader Luis Montenegro, who likely would become prime minister if his alliance wins, ruled out during campaigning the possibility of teaming up with Chega, some of whose policy proposals are unpalatable for many Portuguese.

But if Montenegro is unable to assemble a majority government, his hand could be forced, leaving Chega as a kingmaker.

Chega leader Andre Ventura, a former law professor and television soccer pundit, has said he is prepared to drop some of his party’s most controversial proposals – such as chemical castration for some sex offenders and the introduction of life prison sentences – if that enables his party’s inclusion in a possible governing alliance with other right-of-center parties.

His insistence on national sovereignty instead of closer European Union integration and his plan to grant police the right to strike are other issues that could thwart his ambitions to enter a government coalition, however.

Ventura was quick to react to the exit poll, telling reporters awaiting official results that the ballot marked the end of a two-party political system in Portugal after what he called his party’s “landmark result.”

Chega “stands ready to be part of a government,” Ventura said.

Chega ran its campaign largely on an anti-corruption platform. Graft scandals triggered the early election after former Socialist leader and Prime Minister António Costa resigned in November after eight years as prime minister amid a corruption investigation involving his chief of staff. Costa hasn’t been accused of any crime.

That episode appeared to have hurt the Socialists at the ballot box.

Public frustration with politics-as-usual had already been percolating before the outcries over graft. Low wages and a high cost of living – worsened last year by surges in inflation and interest rates – coupled with a housing crisis and failings in public health care contributed to the disgruntlement.

The discontent has been further stirred up by Chega, which potentially could gain the most from the current public mood.

Sonia Ferreira, a 55-year-old financial manager voting in Lisbon, said the ballot is “decisive” because the continent needs to halt the growth of hard-right parties.

“We are seeing very extremist movements across the European Union and we must all be very careful,” she said.

The Social Democrats, too, were embarrassed just before the campaign by a graft scandal that brought the resignation of two prominent party officials.

Meanwhile, voters have expressed alarm at Portugal’s living standards as financial pressures mount.

An influx of foreign real estate investors and tourists seeking short-term rentals brought a spike in house prices, especially in big cities such as the capital Lisbon where many locals are being priced out of the market.

The economy feels stuck in a low gear. The Portuguese, who have long been among Western Europe’s lowest earners, received an average monthly wage before tax last year of around 1,500 euros ($1,640) – barely enough to rent a one-bedroom flat in Lisbon. Close to 3 million Portuguese workers earn less than 1,000 euros ($1,093) a month.

The number of people without an assigned family doctor, meantime, rose to 1.7 million last year, the highest number ever and up from 1.4 million in 2022.

The 46-year-old Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos, his party’s candidate for prime minister, is promising change with what he vaguely calls “a fresh boost.” But he hasn’t broken with senior party members who served in previous governments.

Social Democrat leader Luis Montenegro, 51 says he’ll draft non-party-affiliated figures ““ people he calls “doers” — into his government.

Ventura, the Chega leader, has cannily plugged into the dissatisfaction and has built a following among young people on social media. Just five years old, Chega collected its first seat in Portugal’s 230-seat Parliament in 2019. That jumped to 12 seats in 2022, and polls suggest it could more than double that number this time.

Ventura has had a colorful career. He has gone from a practicing lawyer and university professor specializing in tax law to a boisterous television soccer pundit, an author of low-brow books and a bombastic orator on the campaign trail.

___

Helena Alves contributed to this report.

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