When I go to the office, I usually take the bike lane along Avenida da República, one of the principal arteries of Lisbon. All political parties rely on the traffic to force the countless drivers to stare at their billboards as they wait for the green light. Whenever I pass, I get a free class on Portuguese politics.
When I arrived in Lisbon in 2019, I started working on a project that tried to answer the following question: why is there no populism in Portugal? By now it is clear that populism is a common feature of Portuguese politics, the question would be perceived as naive at best. Another aspect changed since 2019: the party system has been evolving rapidly, with the populist radical right entering the parliament for the first time since the Carnation Revolution that in 1974 started the third wave of democratization across the world.
The Portuguese party system was famous for its stability, and on the right the two main parties were PSD and CDS. Now CDS is out of the parliament, and PSD is challenged by many new parties. Opportunity structures on the right are so favourable that many are trying to carve out their own space: it is the Wild West out there.
For this reason, I started taking pictures of all the billboards of right-wing parties I see when going to the office: to map the political space, understand its future evolution, and have a better grasp at the strategies of all the actors involved.
This work was first published on Twitter, and now it is polished and expanded in this new format to have all the information in one place (and to have it somewhere that is not Twitter, a space by now unusable for ethical and technological reasons, but that’s another story).
Enjoy the read…
The Portuguese right is going through a turbulent time. After decades of extreme stability, new parties are emerging and challenging the mainstream. PSD, the traditional/mainstream centre-right party, does not manage to be in power since 2015, and its historical ally (CDS) was wiped out of the parliament in 2022. This means that opportunities for new parties on the right are virtually endless.
What is going to happen?
To understand the evolution of right-wing parties in Portugal, I started looking at the billboards spreading across Lisbon and learned some important lessons. Let’s start from one of the biggest surprises of Portuguese politics in the last years: Chega (Enough), the first populist radical right party to enter the Portuguese parliament. Its leader is André Ventura, a former football commentator with a degree in Law, who wanted to become a priest but ended up leading the Portuguese radical right. Chega entered the parliament in 2019, a few months after its creation, with only one deputy: Ventura himself. After the 2022 snap elections, it became the third most voted party and it can now count on 12 MPs.
A few days ago I noticed a new billbaord:
The billboard, with Ventura’s face on the left, communicates the following:
Protugal needs a cleaning
Four people are crossed out. The current and former leader of the left-wing Partido Socialista (PS) José Socrates and António Costa, the current Finance Minister (also PS) Fernando Medina, and Ricardo Salgado, a banker involved in corruption scandals.
This one is the last of a long series of Chega’s billboards across Lisbon. It is particularly meaningful because it pushes Chega’s rhetoric a step further, with a word (cleaning) semantically going towards quasi-fascist territories. Chega seems to be shifting the boundaries of ‘what can be said’, moving the red line of the public discourse waiting to see the reactions, testing the waters to see what passes and what does not. In other words, it is taking measures for a Portuguese version of the Overton Window. Meanwhile, the public discourse becomes more toxic because the opponents are defined as enemies to get rid of, clean away. Chantel Mouffe claimed that politics should be a conflict between political adversaries and not moral enemies. Clearly, Ventura disagrees.
Let’s move to another challenger: Aliança (Alliance). It was created as a splinter of the mainstream right (PSD) in 2018. Its creator and first leader was Pedro Santana Lopes, Prime Minister between 2004 and 2005 as well as former PSD president. So far, Aliança has failed to become “the heart of the right” (as the billboard below claimed).
In fact, Aliança has not elected any MP at the 2019 and 2022 national elections. Their “winning formula”, namely being liberal on economy and conservative on cultural issues, is not winning much so far. They follow moderate right-wing parties such as FDP (Germany), Ciudadanos (Spain), or VVD (Netherlands) without much success. Probably, it is unclear to the electorate what differentiates Aliança from PSD. We know that when confronted with the original and its copy, people tend to vote for the original: hence, it does not look like there is any significant success in their future. In fact, a former Aliança vice-president is creating her own party: Nova Direita.
Nova Direita (New Right) is therefore the splinter of a splinter. The leader Ossanda Liber was a vice-president of Aliança, which in turn was a splinter od the mainstream PSD. Nova Direita has been collecting signatures to become a party, and its existence certifies the failure of Aliança as well as the fact that there is an opportunity to fish for right-wing voters. In this sense, Nova Direita is following an interesting strategy.
Indeed, the party adopts many classic right-wing ideas such as nationalism or state “efficiency” (aka privatizations), but introduces some peculiar variations: it appeals to the youth (“give confidence to the young” says the billboard above), proposes to integrate the migrants and focuses on renewable energies. Not your classic right-wing party. The goal of Ossanda Liber is to position Nova Direita to the right of the mainstream party PSD, and to the left of the radical right Chega. Its existence and strategic positioning tells us two things. First, after almost 50 years since the revolution, the space to the right of the mainstream PSD is up for grabs. Second, the fight for this space has started.
Let’s now move to another unusual right-wing party: Volt. Ok, Volt is not necessarily right-wing because on cultural issues it is rather progressive. On LGBT rights, assisted suicide, and light drugs, it is very far from the positions of Chega for example. However, we know what happens to parties that declare to be neither right nor left, post-ideological…
In the billboard above, Volt professes its pro-Europeanism (“Future made in Europe“) and its disgust towards what they call “political radicalism“. This radicalism is represented by both the far right (André Ventura) and Communism (Jerónimo de Sousa), showing that for Volt any ideology is intrinsically wrong. Symbolically, it is important to note that between the two ideological extremes, Volt puts Vladimir Putin (the blood in the billboard has been added by some people as situationist déteournement perhaps). The message is: *every* ideology is the evil incarnated.
In its technocratic way (with a populist touch), Volt is not in direct competition with the mainstream right (PSD), but rather in competition with newer, ‘smarter’ right-wing parties like Iniciativa Liberal that are rather progressive on cultural issues (we’ll come to it in a moment). That specific political space is getting very crowded, and Volt at the moment does not seem to be able to obtain significant results in Portugal. However, having a pan-European structure, on the long run Volt might be a surprise and carve out a space in Portuguese politics.
If that niche seems very crowded, the far right in Portugal is a relatively free space, with Chega leading the way and no other clear contender (waiting to see what will be of Nova Direita). Partido Novo (New Party) is yet another movement that is trying to become a party. Contrary to Nova Direita, Partido Novo does not seem to have many chances. Nonetheless, its story is quite interesting.
First, it is important to point to the fact that the party’s leader is Manuel Ferreira, one of Chega’s founders. Therefore, also this movement can be classified as a splinter. Chega suspended Manuel Ferreira because he proposed to introduce a law inspired by Hungary against the ‘Gay Lobby’. After being suspended he resigned because “he can’t kneel to the Gay Lobby”. On Facebook he claims that Partido Novo will be “100% conservative in values, 100% liberal in economy, 100% national in politics, 100% personalist in philosophy”. The party’s symbol (a green diamond) represents “the Portuguese people, stronger than steel and eternal”. Ferreira was accused of stealing Chega’s Facebook pages and renaming them “Partido Novo”, thus carrying with him thousands of people who subscribed to Chega’s pages.
Partido Novo will probably never become a real party and, even if it does, it will hardly play any significant role. However, its mere existence (on billboards) shows that the far right political space is now viable and that new parties will challenge Chega.
Speaking of challengers, Iniciativa Liberal (Liberal Initiative) is definitely the most successful one together with Chega. Iniciativa Liberal (IL) was created in 2017, entered the parliament in 2019 and increased its presence at the 2022 snap elections: it is now the fourth party in Portugal. It was a very fast growth, similar to Chega’s. What explains the success of IL? It is a liberal (almost libertarian) party in economy, fan of laissez-faire, and relatively progressive on cultural issues. It pushes for privatizations, private property, flat income tax. In this it is close to Chega that, however, is more conservative on cultural issues. The main focus of IL is fighting socialism and the legacies of the Carnation Revolution, ‘modernize’ (aka privatize) the Portuguese economy and become a paradise for corporate tax. In the billboard above they directly attack the socialist Prime Minister António Costa.
“Get used to impoverishment, the emigration of our kids, the collapse of public services” (This is “said” by the smiling figure of António Costa on the left).
On the right, IL sends its message: “Change of habits“.
This implies changing things after many years of socialist government (with the radical left even involved in the government in 2015-19).
Interestingly, to solve the “collapse of public services” Iniciativa Liberal does not propose to invest more money, but to privatise them. Compared to the traditional right (PSD), IL is more liberal economically and tries not to talk too much about cultural issues, on which Chega is strong. Iniciativa Liberal and Chega can seriously challenge PSD on economic and cultural issues: are they going to replace PSD altogether?
Iniciativa Liberal can thrive if it remains a moderate party respecting democracy, thus being perceived as less radical than Chega. But if Iniciativa Liberal decides to move further to the right it will directly compete with Chega, to the advantage of PSD. Moreover, if PSD copies their economic agenda Iniciativa Liberal might fade. Interestingly, however, Iniciativa Liberal seems to be targeting the socialist prime minister António Costa instead of trying to compete with other right-wing parties.
In the billboard above they have António Costa dressed like a magician, and it reads:
“The Great Illusionist. He does not have solutions but always has a trick up his sleeve“.
On the right, IL claims to do “politics without tricks“.
Does this indicate that their goal is to be perceived as the main right-wing party, trying to replace PSD as the party that can challenge the socialist government?
Speaking of the devil, despite its name, the Partido Social Democrata (Social Democratic Party – PSD) is a right-wing party. In fact, in Portugal it is *the* right-wing party. It tried to pass as social democratic because after the Carnation Revolution every right-wing party was suspicious and potentially linked to the old regime. In their symbol, PSD even had the three arrows that social democrats used to oppose Nazism (now only one arrow is left). In 1975, the party (still called PPD) applied to join the Socialist International, but the Socialist Party vetoed its application! From 1985 the party went to the right and with its leader Aníbal Cavaco Silva dominated Portuguese politics for a decade.
After the end of its golden age, PSD remained the most successful right-wing party but rarely managed to be in power. As the billboard above shows, with their new leader they are trying to change the perception people have of them: “Luís Montenegro. New force, new path“. The party does not explain what exactly is new in their path (apart from the leader) or how they are going to change, but the adjective “new” is the key here, as Nova Direita and Partido Novo understood very well.
In conclusion, PSD lost its natural ally CDS (of which I did not find any billboard yet), and is now challenged by lots of parties. Chega and Iniciativa Liberal are now the third and fourth most voted parties, with new movements trying to come to the surface and grab their share of votes. It is getting crowded: to stay relevant and form a government PSD has to change its image (or at least give the impression to be doing so). To achieve this, it must distance itself from Iniciativa Liberal in economic terms and from Chega in cultural terms. Otherwise, PSD will decline like several mainstream right-wing parties in Europe.
Last but not least, another movement is collecting the signatures to become a party: the Partido Libertario. After years spent planning the creation of such a party, it seems that it will be a reality, further crowding the right-wing space in the Portuguese party system. It is impossible to forsee what the Portuguese right will look like in the coming years but one thing is certain: it will look nothing like it did until 2019.