Interview #37 – The end of Portuguese exceptionalism?

Portugal has been a dictatorship for almost half a century, until the Carnation Revolution (1926-1974). In the forty-five following years (1974-2019), Portugal has become an “exception” since it seemed to be immune to far right parties, populism, and all the other phenomena that in the meantime were characterizing the rest of Europe. Last October, however, Portugal went to vote (well, not many people, the turnout was below 50%). Is Portugal still an “exceptional” country? Who are André Ventura and Joacine Katar-Moreira? We asked Alexandre Afonso to answer these and many other questions about the lesser known of Iberian democracies. In the next months, the focus will be often on Portugal and Spain, so stay tuned…


Lisbon, Autumn 2019.

POP) The result of the last legislative elections is another socialist government with Antonio Costa as Prime Minister. However, while Portugal is a country particularly refractory to sudden change, it would be misleading to claim that everything is business as usual. One element of change is particularly noisy: Chega, the far right party of André Ventura, entered the Portuguese Parliament. Is this really the end of the Portugese exceptionalism?

Alexandre Afonso) To me the Portuguese exceptionalism regarding the absence of a  significant radical right force was always more a question of supply than demand. If you look at attitudes towards immigration in international surveys such as the European Social Survey, the Portuguese public is no less opposed to immigration than other countries, so the “demand” for the kind of anti-immigration and pro-authority agendas that populist right parties champion elsewhere is probably there in Portugal too. What was perhaps lacking was a credible political supply in the form of parties that could take advantage of this and occupy that political space. There might have been different factors that prevented this.

First, it’s difficult to test this empirically, but one possibility is that the Communist party might have mobilised part of that electorate. It is not an anti-immigration party, but it mobilised along themes of national sovereignty, criticism of the European Union, appealing to older blue collar workers, and it might have occupied the space that radical right parties occupy elsewhere. Second, there might also be the fact that the portuguese population has traditionally expressed its criticism of the political system via strategies of exit (abstention or immigration) rather than voice (voting for radicals). Emigration was a way to express discontent; it was also for a long time much more important than immigration, lowering the salience of an issue on which populist right-wing parties can draw.

These two factors are strikingly similar in the only remaining country that doesn’t have a radical right party: Ireland. There too, you have a party that mobilizes along some form of nationalism without being anti-immigration (Sinn Fein) and a tradition of emigration. I don’t know whether Chega will be able to break that situation but you can expect the Portuguese media to give Ventura plenty of airtime to market these ideas, and the demand is certainly there. The question is whether he’ll be able to mount a proper organisation to exploit this and grow. We know that radical parties in other countries often struggle with recruiting competent political personnel.


“What if tomorrow you would wake up with no politicians?” This is the slogan of a newly formed right-wing populist movement called *Movimento Gente* (People’s Movement).

POP) Chega might have been the loudest surprise from last elections, but nothing was more visually disruptive than Joacine Katar-Moreira, leader of Livre, one of three first black female MPs to enter the Portuguese parliament together with Beatriz Gomes Dias (Left Bloc) and Romualda Fernandes (Socialist). Is Portugal re-discovering topics that have been basically irrelevant in the public debate, namely immigration and colonialism?

AA) I think Portugal has always had a somewhat hypocritical relationship to these issues. This may date back to the Estado Novo and the whole idea of “lusotropicalism” or the idea that Portugal was fundamentally different from other colonial powers because everybody was treated equally independently of race. This was of course an illusion but it still shaped the self-image of the Portuguese in the sense that people believed that racism was not part of the national culture. And yet, over the years there were always racist incidents, from the murder of Alcindo Monteiro by neonazis in 1995 to the attacks that people like Joacine Katar-Moreira or Mamadou Ba have been the target of in recent years, which I don’t think would have been directed similarly at white people. For a long time this was not salient but now that immigration is taking greater proportions, there needs to be a greater debate on this. For instance, it doesn’t seem to me that Portugal has had a proper debate about colonialism and its role in the way countries like France or the United Kingdom have had it. We know that forced labour in the colonies was a common practice, yet there is still the widespread idea that Portugal was a “good coloniser”, and racism is some alien ideology. This illusion  of immunity to xenophobia is a bit dangerous because it allows proper neonazis to be given a tribune on daytime TV without much thought about the implications; this something that would never happen in countries with a much greater awareness of their past like, say, Germany.


Where are black people in Portugal?

POP) Last elections also gave more strength to the Socialist Party, who will govern without the two left-wing parties: Left Bloc and Communist Party. What consequences do you expect from the end of the so-called geringonça? Will the socialists be free to keep a more centrist line, or will the left push them to insist on civil rights, the protection of workers, reforms of the real estate market, and more funding for culture and education?

AA) As long as the Left Bloc (BE) and the Communists (PCP) see an interest in supporting the PS to achieve some policy goals while it doesn’t erode their own political support, I don’t really see a change coming up. Now the risk with that kind of arrangement, as many junior partners in coalitions in Europe have experienced, is that the supporting parties tend to lose electoral support as the major partner tends to devour the junior partner: we’ve seen that in France between the socialists and communists in the 1980s, and elsewhere. This has happened to some extent in Portugal, and the BE and PCP may have to weigh what matters most for them, either policy influence or their own electoral survival.

POP) Let’s discuss the alleged “Portuguese miracle”. In 2011, the country’s high public debt and unemployment brought the Socialist government to agree to a bailout of 78 billion euros. Now the Portuguese economy has largely recovered from the crisis, unemployment is at a 10-year low and exports and investment are growing. Is it correct to claim that Portugal offers lessons for social democratic parties elsewhere in Europe or the situation is more nuanced?

AA) Well, given where the economy was it could go elsewhere but up. It’s really only Greece and its specific set of circumstances that has been in a unique and very protracted phase of crisis. In the Portuguese case, given the extent of the crisis and the adjustment in wages, it would have been difficult to imagine an ever longer recession. But one also shouldn’t downplay the remarkable feature of having a centre-left government supported by communists and the radical left achieving such low deficits and even perhaps achieving a budget surplus in 2019, something that had never happened since the advent of democracy in 1974. This came at some price, notably in public investment, but it is indeed a pretty remarkable feat. Now again, I don’t know whether the Portuguese experience can really be used as a model for other social-democratic parties elsewhere given the specificity of the Portuguese economy and party system: education levels still lag behind other countries, the economy is still catching up with the rest of Western Europe in living standards, there is no substantial competition by green parties (yet), among others. If you look at the class structure of the electorate, the Portuguese party system is still to some extent in an “industrial” phase that is fairly favourable for the mainstream left, a bit like Western Europe in the 1970s or 1980s. The context is now quite different in the rest of Western Europe, with a greater fragmentation of the electorate on the left due to the rise of postindustrial values.


POP) Another element that sets Portugal apart from the rest of Europe is the absence of a strong green party. A partial exception is PAN (people-animals-nature), which however is hard to describe as a classic green party. How do you explain this situation?

AA) It’s important to keep in mind that the late democratisation and the long standing economic backwardness of Portugal compared to the rest of Europe  led to a development where major electoral change happened 15 or 20 years later. So while this is appearing in the large cities, Portuguese didn’t really have for  along the type of educated urban middle class that would vote for Green parties.

POP) Many features of Portuguese politics are linked, more or less directly, to the experience of the revolution. The transition from an extremely long authoritarian regime to democracy passed through 18 months of revolution, to the point that Francisco Franco thought of invading Portugal to stem the perceived threat of communism. Is the revolutionary legacy still active today in Portugal? Or the process of normalization has been completed?

AA) I think the marks of the revolution are still very visible today and were marked by the nature of democratisation. Because of the quick nature of the transition, political parties were focused right away on building the democratic regime rather than building mass organisations with deep roots in the electorate. This explains the very superficial appeal of political parties, and generally, the low level of politicisation of the electorate. If you look at measures of interest in politics, Portugal scores really low, and I believe this has to do with the historical trajectory of the democratic transition. The other aspect where the legacy of the revolution is present is the timing of democratisation with regard to world economic cycles. Other West European countries were democratic in the 1950s and 1960s, a period where the large demands for social policies could be satisfied by high rates of growth, and solid welfare states could be built. In contrast, Portugal democratised and built its welfare state much later, when world rates of growth were much lower, and democratic demands for social protection were harder to satisfy. This initial handicap can still be felt today in its welfare state and political economy. 


Lisbon, Winter 2020.


Alexandre Afonso is an associate professor of public policy at Leiden University, Netherlands. He focuses on the comparative political economy of labour markets and welfare states in Europe. His work has been published in Socio-Economic ReviewComparative Political StudiesJournal of European Public Policy and Governance, among others. He is currently writing a book on welfare  states and the birth of immigration control in Europe. He tweets at

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