Portugal: The European Exception

Political graffiti by the Portuguese Communist Youth in central Lisbon. Photo: Markus Barnevik Olsson

Europe is currently experiencing a political transformation. Progressive power is weakening, whereas the influence of right-wing parties is strengthening. Germany, the UK, Sweden and Spain are only a scratch on the surface. Some would even go as far as calling it the death of social democracy in Europe. However, Portugal is the European exception where socialists – and even communists – continue to thrive. The Perspective Webzine is in Lisbon to find out why. 

Since the parliamentary election of 2019, Portugal is governed by a minority government led by socialist leader António Costa and his Partido Socialista. The socialists together with the Left Bloc and the Coalition of Communists and Greens constitute over 50% of the total votes in the south European nation. 

As strong as the left is in Portuguese politics today, it hasn’t always been that way. After a military coup in 1926, the right-wing dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar was appointed to the role of Prime Minister in 1932. 

A new constitution titled O Estado Novo (the New State) was enforced, and with it, the beginning of a dictatorship that would last until 1974. The dictatorship was abolished as a result of the relatively peaceful Carnatian Revolution in 1974, where a total of 5-6 people died

António Oliveira Salazar ruled Portugal for 36 years. Photo: Flickr/Biblioteca de Arte

Following the revolution, a new constitution was written, remarkably forbidding extreme right-wing parties in parliament. Additionally, the constitution calls for opening up “a path towards a socialist society”. 

The current lack of right-wing parties “is a consequence of the right-wing [Salazar] regime”, Professor Paula Espírito Santo explained to The Perspective in her office at the University of Lisbon, situated just outside of the city centre. Mrs Espírito Santo is a professor in political science and has done research on political parties in Portugal. 

“In 1976 our first free election was held. In 1986 we joined the European Union. (…) Today the EU-minister of finance is Portuguese. I heard they call him the Ronaldo of finances in Brussels.” 

Political science Professor Paula Espírito Santo in her office at the University of Lisbon. Photo: Alice Rogblad Wahlström

“There is a lot in our past that is unhelpful. (…) Our modern political culture has a genetic political imprint from the Salazar period.”. Memory of fascist rule seems to prevent right-wing extremist parties to gain support among the Portuguese people. Portugal has only been a democracy for 46 years, meaning that a substantial part of the population still clearly remembers the widespread poverty and repression under the dictatorship. 

One political group which systematically resisted the fascist Salazar-regime was the Portuguese Communist Party. It survived the regime as well as the Cold War thanks to its sturdy roots in the labour unions and strong relationship with the people. Communist parties in other European countries faded away in a political disarray of modernization, but the Portuguese Communist party endured by conserving an ideological foundation. Today it is a natural part of the political scenery and the party received over 6% of the votes in the parliamentary election of 2019 and is even more popular in local elections, especially in the “red south” as the professor likes to call it. 

“The communist leaders in Portugal have a very prestigious image among the population since they were tortured in jail by the Salazar-regime. They also hold a respected image from the other parties in parliament. In Portugal, even if you do not ‘follow the communists’ you still have respect for them.”

“Is their agenda truly communist? Well yes, it is!” the professor exclaims. 

Election posters for the Communist Party can be found everywhere, such as here in Aveiro. They appeal for a higher minimum wage, increasing pensions and free daycare. Photo: Markus Barnevik Olsson

Naturally, the Portuguese political landscape is not completely dominated by socialists and communists. The centre-right Social Democratic Party (yes you read that correctly) is the second biggest party in parliament with almost 24% of the votes. However, the party was unsuccessful in playing the role as lead opposition due to its current fragmentation and disorganization. 

“We do not use the term ‘conservative’ in Portugal.” professor Espírito Santo proclaims. 

Portugal, together with Ireland, Luxembourg and Malta are the only EU member states without an electorally significant right-wing populist movement. Yet as of 2019, the right-wing party leader of Chega (Enough), André Ventura, managed to grab one seat in parliament. With barely 1% of the total votes and no collaboration party in sight, its political influence is currently very limited. 

“He [Ventura] offers miraculous solutions to big problems. (…) Politicians choose not to sit next to him in parliament. No one gets along with him.” the professor explains. She then continues to describe Chega’s transformation:

“Previously, Chega spoke negatively about minority groups such as black people, Roma and so on and was supported by skinheads. Today, the party has changed. Without changing its rhetoric, it would never have been allowed into parliament by law of the constitution.”

PM António Costa shaking hands with Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council 2014-2019. According to a survey from 2019, just second to the Luxembourgers, the Portuguese are the most EU-friendly people in the union. That would explain Tusks’ smile. Photo: Flickr/European Council President

In addition to Portugal’s fascist past being a reason for its failed right-wing extremism, another explanation involves the recent absence of large-scale immigration. Portugal received few refugees compared to other EU-countries, especially when compared to other Southern European countries. Only Slovakia took in fewer migrants per thousand inhabitants than Portugal after the so-called migration wave of 2015. Being a former colonial power, Portuguese culture has been socialized to a multi-ethnic society with migrants long coming from its former colonies, including Brazil and Angola. This restricted the use of anti-immigration rhetoric by right-wing sympathizers. 

As a consequence of emigration and an ageing population, Portugal is de facto actively seeking more immigrants. A recurrent explanation to why refugees turn elsewhere is the low minimum wage, the lowest in Western Europe. The question of raising the wages is a more prioritized political discussion which hardly leaves room for the anti-immigration debate. 

“We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric,” Prime Minister António Costa exclaimed in 2018

An old but still functioning tram in Bairro Alto, Lisbon. Photo: Max Pixel


If Portugal continues to be the political exception remains to be seen. Right-wing populists seem to lack the arguments needed to turn the ideological tide in the country. For Portugal to radically change its political direction, it will require more than a reliable centre-right opposition to defeat the deep-rooted Portuguese socialist movement. Furthermore, immigration is currently perceived as a solution rather than a problem, obstructing an anti-immigration agenda. As long as the fascist era is commonly referred to as something disgraceful and unsentimental, people will continue to yell “Fascists!” to right-wing demonstrators on the sloping streets of Lisbon. 

“Make Portugal Great Again!” was the slogan of a right-wing extremist party for the 2019 election. However, it seems like the Portuguese already consider Portugal to be pretty great. 

Markus Barnevik Olsson

2024 © The Perspective – All Rights Reserved