Portugal elections: Voters say “Enough” as populism rears its head

Joe Watts-Morgan, Client Executive


Portugal became the latest country to join the 2024 election club on Sunday, with the country heading to the polls in what proved to be a major shake-up to the country’s political direction. 

With the votes counted, the centre-right Democratic Alliance (AD) has claimed a narrow victory, securing 79 seats in Parliament compared to the 77 seats for the governing Socialist Party (PS). However, both parties remain far short of a majority, and AD leader Luis Montenegro has said he will attempt to form a minority Government. 

Like many other elections taking place this year, the spectre of the populism has loomed large over the campaign. The ‘Chega’ party (meaning ‘Enough’ in Portuguese) polled strongly at 18% and secured a record 48 seats, meaning Portugal’s status as one of the last Western European nations to have kept the far-right at bay appears to have come to an end.

This snap-election was called after a high-profile corruption scandal triggered the resignation of Prime Minister António Costa and collapse of the previous PS Government. The Prime Minister’s official residence was raided, and Chief of Staff arrested as part of the police anti-corruption operation, and while Costa was not formally accused of any crime, he stated his were “not compatible with any suspicion of my integrity”. 

Corruption naturally ranked as the highest issue for voters during the campaign, with the opposition parties hammering the PS’s recent track record.  on this topic. Opposition parties displayed an anti-corruption billboard in Lisbon saying, “It can’t go on like this”, and Chega made the issue a central focus of its campaign, adopting the slogan “Portugal needs a clean-up".

Housing also ranked as another major issue, with the doubling of price of houses doubling since Costa first entered office in 2015 fuelling further significant public discontent with the Government.5. On this subject, Santos promised not to “demonize” tourists, with tourism making up 15% of Portugal’s GDP, and pledged to accelerate the supply of affordable homes. He also argued that a government scheme to build new housing and convert public buildings into residential properties was a good move.

Chega took full advantage of the scandals and policy failures to drive a steady rise in the polls, and its strong election result has positioned the part as kingmaker. While party leader André Ventura had expressed a willingness to support an AD-led Government, Montenegro explicitly ruled out this option over the campaign, claiming Chega lacks the “maturity” to govern.  

Sticking with this position, the incoming Prime Minister will now have to navigate the challenges of governing with a minority Government and being at the mercy of a no-confidence vote from PS and Chega.  

For now, the door has been closed on the possibility of Portugal following Italy and Sweden by electing a populist Government, although the future is still uncertain. Chega’s rapid rise since its establishment in 2019 represents an upheaval of previous Portugese political establishment, and this latest electoral breakthrough echo’s similar success by Vox in Spain and Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands. Ventura himself celebrated the end of “two-party rule” on election night, and given their newfound influence in Parliament, they are well placed to continue this trajectory. 

Instability appears to be the likely order of business for the foreseeable future, as the minority Government attempts to deal with a newly emboldened Chega eager to embrace its anti-establishment streak. Some political leaders are even speculating new elections will be needed as early as next year.

Regardless of whether AD will last the parliamentary term, it does appear that Portugal’s position as the lone exception to the rise of populism in Western Europe has come to an end, with Chega, remaining a force to be reckoned with for the years to come.

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