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Portuguese elections: far-right Chega and progressive Livre mobilize voters online, main parties preach to their choirs on TV

Roos van Hennekeler

For a long time, Portugal was seen as an exception when it came to the rise of far-right parties all over Europe, but last weekend’s snap elections marked the end of that state of affairs. Far-right party Chega, with 18% of the vote, came in third – just behind the two main parties (the Socialists and the Social Democrats) that alternately ruled the country ever since its transition to democracy in the 1970s. In 2022, the socialists still managed to secure an absolute majority – with far-right Chega stuck at around 7%. What has changed since then, what can be learned, and what has been the role of digital organizing in the 2024 campaigns?

André Ventura from Chega party in Portugal
From the Chega Facebook page

To begin with the obvious: a party that explicitly positions itself as anti-corruption, as Chega does, is going to benefit politically when actual corruption within the political establishment comes to light. The fact that the 2024 snap elections were called by socialist prime minister António Costa after allegations of corruption in his government can both explain why support for his party has plummeted – despite its impressive victory only two years ago – and why an anti-establishment party like Chega would see gains. The higher turnout in this election could also point in that direction: widespread dissatisfaction with the political establishment can mobilize people who normally would not vote. Apart from its corruption scandals, the country is also faced with a surging cost of living, a serious housing crisis, and a struggling healthcare system.

Portugal’s main parties, the Socialists (PS) and the Social Democrats (PSD), each possess a solid voter base, which their respective 2024 campaigns mostly focused on. Neither of these parties has a strong online presence: they rely mostly on television broadcasts and face-to-face contact with their existing voter bases via rallies and campaign events. During the past five decades, when elections for the most part were head-to-head races between these two parties, this tactic seems to have worked just fine. But the growing dissatisfaction of the Portuguese electorate – combined with new digital tactics for channeling and mobilizing that discontent – now seems to have created a new dynamic.

Unlike the two main parties, far-right Chega clearly understands how to harness the power of the online world: a quick look at their YouTube channel shows videos with views of many thousands and 161.000 subscribers. They are equally strong on Tiktok, they make use of WhatsApp groups, and they collect small donations online – albeit somewhat limited by a Portuguese ban on advertising during election times. Chega’s Trumpian, anti-elitist language, meanwhile, appeals to people who normally might not feel as included in politics. All of this makes the far-right party great at mobilizing new voters – leaving Portugal’s main parties to preach to their own choirs.

a post from the Livre Instragam page telling people to sign a petition
From the Livre Instagram page

Of course, Chega’s utilization of digital tactics alone does not explain the outcome of these elections: the variety of factors that contribute to the outcome of an election will always defy a single explanation – and there are plenty of interesting takes going around about this particular result. All the same, it would be difficult to cast as a coincidence the fact that the only progressive party that did make a serious leap forward during last weekend’s elections – on a smaller scale, jumping from one to four MPs – was pro-EU Livre, which also ran a comprehensive digital campaign in the past months.

What will happen next in Portugal is difficult to predict but limited to just a few options.

Luis Montenegro, whose Democratic Alliance has claimed a slim victory over the socialists with 29,5% of the vote to their 28,7%, has earlier this week reiterated his intention not to form a government or enter into any kind of negotiation with Chega’s populist leader André Ventura. If Montenegro sticks to that promise, the Democratic Alliance will likely end up forming a minority government. In that scenario, the real test will come in October, when the Portuguese parliament has to vote on a new state budget. It will be difficult to get the budget through without the support of Chega – so an agreement with this far-right party in some shape will probably have to be forged before then. If the minority government does not manage to secure enough support for the budget, yet another election can be triggered – a reason for both socialist PS and center-right PSD to begin updating their campaign tactics and think about how they, too, can start mobilizing those dissatisfied voters that made their voices heard last weekend.

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