Portugal votes in a general election where mainstream moderates are trying to keep populists at bay

Low wages and a high cost of living as well as a housing crisis and failings in public health care have contributed to the public disgruntlement

Luis Montenegro
Luis Montenegro, leader of the center-right Democratic Alliance coalition, casts his ballot at a poling station in Espinho, northern Portugal, Sunday, March 10, 2024. Portugal is holding an early general election on Sunday when 10.8 million registered voters elect 230 lawmakers to the National Assembly, the country's Parliament. (AP Photo/Luis Vieira)Luis Vieira (AP)

Portugal is holding a general election Sunday against a backdrop of corruption scandals and economic hardship that have eroded faith in moderate mainstream parties and could push a significant number of the country’s 10.8 million voters into the arms of a radical right populist party.

A slew of recent corruption scandals has tarnished the two parties that have alternated in power for decades — the center-left Socialist Party and the center-right Social Democratic Party, which is running with two small allies in a coalition it calls Democratic Alliance. Those traditional parties are still expected to collect most of the votes.

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.

That discontent has been further stirred up by Chega (Enough), a populist party that potentially could gain the most from the current public mood.

Chega is widely expected to be the third most-voted party in a political shift to the right that has already been seen elsewhere in Europe. Spain and France have witnessed similar trends in recent years.

Chega could even end up in the role of kingmaker if a bigger party needs the support of smaller rivals to form a government.

Voting began at 8 a.m. (0800 GMT) and most ballot results were expected within hours of polling stations closing at 8 p.m. (2000 GMT).

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, largely a figurehead but whose formal consent is needed for a party to take power, urged people to vote because uncertain times in world affairs threatened the country’s wellbeing. In the last election in 2022, turnout was 51%.

In a televised address to the nation on Saturday night, Rebelo de Sousa said the unpredictable outcome of elections later this year for the European Parliament and in the United States, as well as the war in Ukraine and conflicts in the Middle East, could bring more economic difficulties.

He said that “it is at grievous times like this that voting becomes more important.”

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 election is taking place because Socialist leader 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.

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, who would likely become prime minister if the Democratic Alliance wins, says he’ll draft non-party-affiliated figures – people he calls “doers” -- into his government.

Chega party leader Andre Ventura 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 says 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 opens the door to his 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.

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

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