Article @ Novara, published 26 January 2021
In normal times, a presidential election is a straightforward affair, resulting in one winner and one (or more) losers. The winner gets to be head of state, the losers often drift into public oblivion until, perhaps, they bid for the spot once more.
But these are not normal times. This weekend’s presidential election in Portugal had long presaged two winners. One was the incumbent, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa of the centre-right PSD, who was reelected with 60.7% of the vote. The other was the chauvinistic, megalomaniac leader of the far-right Chega party, André Ventura.
Portugal has been a democracy since 25 April 1974. Before that, it endured 41 years under the Estado Novo regime, and seven years of military dictatorships. The importance of the 1974 Carnation Revolution goes well beyond the heroic defeat of fascism and the hailing in of democracy. It was a period that radically shifted social and class consciousness in Portugal. The national health service and the Portuguese welfare state were victories of the revolution, as were decolonisation, trade union and women’s rights (including true universal suffrage). In the months that followed, residents’ and workers’ committees boomed across the country. The control of large swathes of agricultural land was taken over by those who worked on it, with management decisions taken collectively by local populations. Similar processes happened in factories, docks, public and private sector companies, and even in schools, where teachers and students met for hours to discuss the ontological principles of education.
As a result, the constitution still mentions “the decision of the Portuguese people to […] make way for a socialist society”. This, however, is now endangered.
Since 2019, Ventura and his cult-of-personality-cum-party Chega (translation: ‘Enough’) have promoted a brand of reactionary politics based on three pillars: xenophobia, anti-left rhetoric, and Estado Novo nostalgia. A poor man’s Donald Trump, Ventura uses slogans to gloss over the many inconsistencies in his policies. At the forefront of his presidential campaign was the idea of the “good Portuguese”: hardworking citizens who are at odds with corruption, wealth inequality and the social status quo. Like Trump and other racist populists before him, Ventura then couples these real grievances with various forms of prejudice. He tells the impoverished rural communities of Alentejo that “gypsies” take all their state support; he tells the unemployed in the urban periphery that while they starve, socialist troublemakers are living it large. He tells men their wives are most attractive when quietly in the kitchen; he tells women they can’t be taken seriously when wearing red lipstick. And he will tell anyone who’ll listen that he is anointed by God.
Almost 500,000 Portuguese voters felt their daily struggles were represented in Ventura’s chicanery, placing him third in the presidential race. The Chega leader was euphoric. All along, Ventura knew his bid was not about winning, but about further normalising his politics. More than votes, he wanted an audience. And on Sunday night, in a losing speech intoned as if a victory, Ventura proclaimed the Fourth Republic “is now ever closer”. The Fourth Republic is a fascist’s wet dream, imagined as the destruction of the current democratic system (known as Third Republic) which “no longer suits”, according to Ventura. The Fourth Republic is a call to arms to the reactionary imagination. It’s a proposition and a powerfully binding paragon.
Ventura’s greatest strength is knowing how to turn his listeners’ resentment into desire. First he noted a widening social gap – a growing number of voters left out of Portugal’s economic recovery – which was in great part a product of foreign capital investment, gentrification and tourism. Then he saw that the traditional Portuguese right, the Christian Democrats of CDS-PP, had vacated the space, sucked first into a coalition with the PSD, subsequently losing its identity and raison d’etre. Ventura formed a party that could bring these voters together – the promise of a better life coupled with traditionalist imagery and institutional racism.
The greatest loser is this election was undoubtedly the left. This wasn’t because of vote share, which if adding the results of Labour’s sister party PS, the anticapitalist Left Bloc and the Communist party came to 21%. It was because the left allowed many of its supporters to be charmed by other forces. Some resigned themselves to the comfort of Rebelo de Sousa’s second term, others succumbed to Chega’s siren-call – but most opted not to vote at all. Between Covid-19 and a colourless political offer, abstention hit 60.5%.
On the night, commentary from left candidates was restrained. PS-member Ana Gomes, who placed second with one point over Ventura, came off stage with a smug smile, greeting members of her team with visible relief. The Communist party and the Left Bloc were more demure. All parties mentioned how the results were testament to Portugal’s belief in democracy. But no one spoke of what the future holds. No one made pledges to take on Chega. No one mentioned the fight to come.
In Portugal – as in Britain or the US – if antifascism is to be successful, there’s an arduous journey ahead. In Portugal, there’s a history to be remembered as well as honoured. Alongside the “socialist society”, the Portuguese constitution pledges to fight for a “freer, fairer and more fraternal country”. Of the half a million people who supported the “anti-systemic” Ventura in this election, most have done so because these pledges have never materialised. By and large, these voters aren’t fascists – they are disillusioned. Once again, it’s the left’s responsibility to show them that a better society is possible.
The left – be it PS, the Left Bloc, the Communist party or any other – is facing its biggest challenge in a long time. To overcome it, it will have to look deep into its structures, practices and promises, and consider whether or not they motivate others. It has to go beyond quoting social statistics, economic figures and welfare policies, and talk about the future its revolutionary forefathers knew to be within reach. To break up bigotry, it must offer abundance. The far right has figured this out already. The difference is the left will mean it.