Portugal’s centre-left Socialist Party stayed in power as the surprise winner of January’s parliamentary election. Many expected it be punished over the collapse of its minority government – the cause of this premature election. But it seems many voters opted for stability, expressing contentment with an effective vaccination programme and the reversal of budgetary cutbacks. Another likely factor was fear of leaving the door open for an upstart right-wing populist party that could have formed part of any right-of-centre government. The government should now pursue policies that address the economic and social grievances right-wing populism feeds on and deliver on people’s expectations of improved social support.

Can it be called a shock result when the incumbent wins? Perhaps in Portugal, where few expected the governing Socialist Party (PS) to hold onto power in the 30 January parliamentary election. But defying all expectations, PS leader António Costa continues as prime minister after his party’s support increased.

The outcome was a surprise because this was a snap election, necessary because of the collapse of the minority PS government. In an arrangement known as the ‘geringonça’ (improvised solution), the centre-left PS worked with two leftist parties, Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party. This came to an end when the two smaller parties voted against the budget proposed by PS in October 2021.

Speculation ahead of the vote focused on whether the parties of the collapsed government would be punished for this political disagreement. There was much speculation about the risk of the stridently right-wing populist Chega party gaining a foothold in government as a consequence.

Pandemic performance and policies matter

But if anyone was punished for their role in the fall of the government, it was the two smaller parties of the left, which both saw their share of the vote decline. Evidently enough people were happy with the performance of Costa and the PS and wanted them to stay in government. Some leftist voters also likely switched from their first choices, backing the PS out of fear of inadvertently allowing Chega into a right-leaning coalition.

Many voters saw the Costa administration as having carried out an effective COVID-19 vaccination drive. Voters may also have considered government continuity the best bet to finalise a package of European Union pandemic recovery funding worth €16.6 billion (approx. US$18.8 billion): a similar need to agree on such funding has helped keep a cross-spectrum coalition government surprisingly stable in Italy.

Policy mattered too. PS‘s reversal of economic austerity policies introduced by its predecessors has won support. In the campaign, PS promised a minimum wage raise and increased spending on healthcare and pensions. In contrast, the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD), emphasised cutting corporate and income tax.

PSD’s vote went up a little, with a 1.5 percentage point increase to 29.3 per cent of the vote, but PS gained further, up by 5.4 percentage points to stand at a commanding 41.7 per cent.

This will be a third term for PS and Costa. It’s rare for any party seeking a third term anywhere, in conditions of free and fair elections, to see its vote increase, but PS’s gain of 11 seats means that unlike before, this will be a majority government. With 117 seats out of 230, it will have a majority of one in the Assembly of the Republic.

A regional pattern of centre-right decline?

The Portugal result may offer some further evidence of an apparently emerging trend in patterns of support for established European parties.

For over a decade, many long-established European democracies have seen a decline in both the traditional major centre-left and centre-right parties that long alternated in power, often as anchors of coalition governments.

Such parties have leaked support towards new parties – populist right-wing parties peddling nationalist and identarian sentiments and new leftist parties, often with their origins in protest movements against neoliberal and austerity policies. That continues to happen, as the growth of Chega suggests. But in pandemic times, in several European countries established centre-left parties have done better – or at least are declining less badly – than those on the centre right.

In 2021 that was the story in Germany and Norway, and now Portugal’s experience suggests something similar. In several European countries, people’s experience of the pandemic may be sparking a greater appreciation of the benefits of public healthcare, social safety nets, secure jobs and safe working conditions – things that can only come when the state is willing to intervene in the market.

Toxic far-right politics an emerging threat

The growth of Chega however offers obvious cause for concern. As right-wing populist forces gained ground across much of Europe, Portugal was spared. People’s enduring memories of a decades-long brutal right-wing dictatorship that lasted until 1974 were assumed to provide a powerful pull against. But Chega has changed this.

Chega is a new party, founded in 2019. In January 2022, it finished third, with 7.2 per cent of the vote, increasing its parliamentary seats from one to 12. As is often the case, this upstart force is strongly associated with one man, former sports broadcaster André Ventura, who – as has been seen elsewhere – used media fame to pivot into politics.

Chega has shattered long-held conventions about acceptable discourse. It has relentlessly manufactured grievances. It has remorselessly targeted hatred at Roma people, a tiny part of Portugal’s population; in 2020, Ventura was fined for making disparaging and discriminatory remarks against Roma people. That same year he called for a politician born in the former Portuguese of colony Guinea-Bissau, Joacine Katar Moreira, to be ‘sent back to her country of origin’ after she raised the question of the return of colonial plunder.

As Chega has risen, polarisation and toxic discourse has inevitably followed. Far-right voices have become emboldened. The space for civil society has become more contested, with growing attacks on the rights of excluded groups, including Roma, Black and LGBTQI+ people, and on anti-racist campaigners. This intensified during the campaign for the presidential election, held in January 2021, in which Chega came third, with 12 per cent of the vote, only narrowly missing out on second place.

The pandemic didn’t just make people see the value of social spending. As everywhere else, it also saw a rise in disinformation, conspiracy theories and far-right narratives. Far-right forces sought to capitalise on any frustration with pandemic restrictions.

Another characteristic of far-right politics became visible in Portugal: right-wing populist parties from other countries came to lend a hand, revealing an increasingly dense international network of nationalists. Spain’s Vox party, longer established as a toxic political force than Chega, supported its campaign, while in the presidential election France’s far-right stalwart Marine Le Pen gave her support.

Four years to minimise the danger

If Costa’s majority holds – if, for example, there are no defections from his party – then the next parliamentary election is four years away. That’s four years during which Chega will either become more of a threat or blow itself out. With PSD likely deflated at the prospect of more than a decade out of power, Chega will try to keep making noise and position itself as the real opposition.

The best way of minimising the threat is through policies that tackle the problems that far-right narratives feed on: economic inequality, exclusion and alienation. Costa promised to make Portugal more fair but also pledged not to govern alone or treat his narrow majority like absolute power. Much depends on him finding the right balance and living up to this promise.


  • The new government should work in partnership with civil society to help foster social cohesion in the face of polarisation and hate speech.
  • Portuguese civil society should work to develop effective counter-narratives to far-right disinformation, hate speech and polarising tactics.
  • Mainstream centre-right parties should clearly rule out any formal cooperation with Chega.

Cover photo by Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images