Chronicle of a storm foretold – the 2021 Portuguese presidential election

On the impact of the election result on Portugal’s political landscape.

At the peak of the pandemic, with Portugal recording the worst numbers of new cases and daily deaths in the world for a fortnight, the Portuguese were called upon to elect the President of the Republic. Unsurprisingly, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the incumbent president of the centre-right, was re-elected with 60% of the votes and the turn out registered a (perhaps higher than expected) decrease (39.2%). After an atypical campaign the far-right candidate, with almost half a million votes (11.9%), failed to reach the goal of ranking second, just overtaken by Ana Gomes, member of the Socialist Party (PS) and former MEP, who ran without the support of her own party, obtaining 13% of the votes. João Ferreira and Marisa Matias, both MEPs representing the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) respectively, achieved poor results of around 4%.

The re-election of Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and the Portuguese political centre

After five years as president, in a mandate characterised by a smooth relationship with the government formed by the Socialist Party with parliamentary agreement of the BE and the PCP, Rebelo de Sousa presented himself in these elections as "a one-man candidacy", trying to distance himself from any party support. Coming from the centre-right party, PSD, of which he is former president, minister and MP, he had not only the official support of his party, but also of the conservative right-wing party (CDS) and the veiled support of the Socialists whose government has had, since its election in 2019, the abetment of Rebelo de Sousa. Although on the election night Rebelo de Sousa presented himself alone in the traditional declaration of victory, the presidents of all the three parties were quick to welcome his re-election, in an obvious attempt to claim for themselves and for the political centre a supposed role in this victory. However, a survey carried out at the exit poll showed that Rebelo de Sousa, who became known by the "president of affections" for his sympathy with the people in distress throughout his past term, managed to reap approval across the political spectrum.
In the particular context of this election, marked by the debut of a far-right candidate, the reading of the expressive vote for Rebelo de Sousa as a reinforcement of the political centre may be fraught with a certain degree of myopia. On the one hand, the weak and erratic leadership of the centre-right party tends to promote the radicalisation of its vote. It is important to point out that: at the end of last year, for the constitution of the regional government of the Azores, PSD signed a parliamentary agreement with the far-right party Chega! (Enough!), raising it not only to the status of a political interlocutor, but even to an ally. On the other hand, the temptation to rescue an increasingly orphaned centre-right party prevented the Socialist Party to support a candidate from its political area, which, in practice, resulted in its resignation from assuming any role in the barrage to the rise of the far-right something that could only make the party’s founders, who fought so hard against Salazar’s dictatorship, blush with shame.

The vote on the leader of the far-right and the political reconfiguration of the Portuguese right

The second winner of the evening, although failing to achieve all the goals set throughout the campaign, was the messianic leader of the newly created far-right party, André Ventura. Elected in the 2019 parliamentary elections with almost 68,000 votes (1.3%), Ventura received almost half a million votes (11.9%) in this presidential election. Taking on a truculent, bullyish and rude tone throughout the campaign, in a homemade version of Trump and Bolsonaro that could count on the support of Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini, Ventura focused on the attack against his left-wing opponents and against the weakest in society (whom he classified as "allowance-dependents living at the expense of the people who work", with a special focus on the Portuguese Roma communities). The exploitation of resentment, labelled by Jacques Rancière in a recent opinion article as “la passion de l’inégalité ["the passion of inequality"] which allows, rich and poor, to find a crowd of inferiors over whom they must, at all costs, maintain their superiority”[1] , is perhaps the key to the success of Ventura’s narrative, in a country that has barely emerged from a deep social and economic crisis and is already on the verge of plunging into a new one, and where Romanophobia has reigned for centuries. Stating that, if elected, he would be the president of the “Portuguese of good will", Ventura further assumed the aim to impose a new constitution, the basis of a Portuguese IV Republic in line with the narrative of the anti-establishment party.
The expressive vote in Ventura may be translated into a very significant increase of the Chega! party in future parliamentary elections. According to practically all recent polls, Venturas party is competing for the third political force with the BE. Such an outcome would represent a serious problem for the traditional right parties, as it is from them that Chega! would get the overwhelming majority of its electoral base. It must be noted that Ventura was once a PSD member and, by the hand of its former leader and Prime Minister during the Troika years, Pedro Passos Coelho, was elected city councillor in a municipality in the Lisbon region his test balloon of an anti-Roma discourse. Also, the party’s number two and its ideologue, Diogo Pacheco de Amorim, was a member of a far-right bomber network[2] active during the revolutionary period and, later, a member of CDS. After the 1974 Revolution, the far-right didn’t just vanish as if by magic. Fearful, ashamed or timid, the far-right lacked, above all, a consistent political project, today represented by the Chega! In one word, the new far-right will host the old one. Since the arrival of the Chega!, CDS has been falling sharply in polls, being currently reduced to 0.8% of voting intentions (against the 4.2% it obtained in the 2019 national elections). Moreover, knowing that the dispute for its largest share of electorate takes place within the traditional right, Ventura on the night of the presidential elections was very clear when he said: "PSD, listen, you will only be in government with the support of the Chega!” An appeal for an alliance with PSD at national level, with some allure to its most radical electorate.
Ventura harvested his most important results in rural areas, including Alentejo, a traditionally communist region. The temptation of pundits and political analysts to refer a communist vote transfer to the far-right candidate is huge but, for the time being, lacks any scientific support. Indeed, the correlation[3] between the results of the communist party in the legislative elections of 2015 and 2019 and the result of Ventura in this presidential election in the Alentejo region shows that André Ventura has worse results where the communist party is stronger.

The left candidates

In the aftermath of the election night, Marisa Matias, who scored 3.9% (less than the half of her score in 2016), took the defeat without any subterfuge. Calling for solidarity and the affirmation of democracy as insurmountable milestones, Matias ended the campaign when none of the left candidacies had reason to celebrate. Although symbolically important, the second place of Gomes (PS) was neither expressive nor brilliant, reaching 12.9% 10 percentage points less than the counterpart candidacy in 2016. On the side of PCP, João Ferreira gathered 4.3% of the votes, with the rhetorical consolation of overcoming the previous candidacy, but with the evidence that his notoriety and his place in the party are not comparable to those of the previous candidate. Currently, Ferreira is one of the most prominent figures in PCP and will likely be the general secretary in the near future.
PCP’s and the BE’s candidacies stood for election under very different circumstances. PCP was facing its first election after enabling a controversial state budget, granting minimum stability to the current Socialist government. On the other hand, BE had taken the opposing stance, considering that the government’s budget did not meet minimal conditions for its approval, on the grounds of being conservative and insufficient to face the pandemic situation. Somehow, the guidelines for each candidacy reflected these differences: João Ferreira presented himself with a state stance, insisting on the defence of the constitution as the fundamental law and the visible heritage of the Carnation Revolution; Marisa Matias waving the flags of the National Health System, the forgotten precariat and the feminist, antiracist and lgbtq+ causes. Both candidates come out defeated, with different causes and repercussions.

The strategic withdrawal of the Socialist Party

The PS in government did not present an own candidate. Faced with the announced victory of the incumbent president, hitchhiking from a mandate made out of complicity and very rare dissonance, the Prime Minister took refuge in a biased neutrality, implicating his party in its entirety. Ana Gomes, with a strong public commitment to fight corruption, managed her candidacy without the official presence of her party. She polarised the vote with the far-right and mobilised a substantial proportion of progressive left and centre-left voters in order to win second place. Although her result represents a tangential victory over her opponent’s reactionary populism, she had limited success in winning votes from the left. Even one of the most mobilising moments of the campaign, prompted by Ventura’s sexist commentary on Marisa Matias’ red lipstick in one of his speeches, might have reverted to Ana Gomes. The solidarity wave of Vermelho em Belém (Red in Belém, Belém being the presidential palace), which invaded the media and surpassed borders, ended up highlighting the urgency in repudiating reactionary sexism at the polls, channeling the vote to those who appeared as the most capable of dethroning it. By not achieving a significant result, Gomes and the left of PS leave the party alone in the race for the centre, before the growing seduction of the centre-right by the electoral performances of the far-right.

The discrete defeat of the João Ferreira

João Ferreira (PCP) stood for election as one of the most likely personalities to lead the Communist party’s destiny in the near future. It is inevitable to think of an exercise in public legitimisation of the political figure of Ferreira, always well prepared, with a sober and objective campaign focused on the institutional exaltation and safeguard of the constitution. The competence of his performance does not, however, conceal the fragility of his proposal, which neither confronted nor called into question the political and social guidelines of the government. The Communist candidacy, despite constituting a fundamental political space, by placing the fundamental law at the centre of its discourse, becomes limited to a political minimum. The Communist candidate addressed, almost exclusively, his party hosts.

Dribbling around adversities with Marisa Matias

The historic result in the 2016 presidential, in which Matias ranked third with 10% of the votes, makes the 2021 results harder to accept. The scant 3.9% of votes underscore the difficulty of left mobilisation in this campaign: three candidacies running for the same electorate, narrowed by the Socialist Party’s leaning towards the reappointment of the current president. In the midst of the pandemic, Matias was prevented from taking the space where she is strongest: the street, the direct contact with people, the fulfilment of proposals made and supported directly by the actors concerned. Campaigning actions with health professionals, informal caregivers, workers struggling for their jobs, important milestones in the affirmation of left policies were assuaged and stifled by the pandemic context.
With emphasis on strengthening the public health system, targeting the forgotten of the pandemic and voicing the growing precariousness, the campaign stressed the importance of a left-wing alternative that does not exhaust in this election.

A storm foretold… and beyond

In the struggle against the far-right it is very hard to avoid the trap of “expansion through struggle”: the more infamous the proposal and the more strident the blunder, the more reactive is the tendency of those who have not resigned, leading indignation to spread the message and multiple the impact. In the aftermath of the Trump era and with social networks as stage, politics is experiencing a vicious circle: struggling ends up favouring the phenomenon fought. The far-right political agenda is becoming increasingly normalised, with the instrumental help of the traditional right’s greed for power, always tempted by coalitions and alliances which have proven suicidal in several parts of the world. In this regard, this Portuguese election is a perfect example.
The confirmation of the success of the far-right leader in Portugal replicates the profile of the sensationalist and unscrupulous television pundit turned into the leading actor in a dangerous plot. The collective and spontaneous reaction to the insult of the "red-lipped candidate" became a magnifying factor of Marisa Matias’ campaign, with painted lips invading public space with the concise force of a hashtag: #VermelhoEmBelém (#RedInBelém). At the end of the day, though we cannot know to which extent this might have strengthen the far-right candidate, we take for granted that this is surely a fragile harbour in face of the foretold storm.
With an uncertain future ahead, the path to be taken by the Socialist government, decisively placed at the political centre through this election, remains to be determined. With the old traditional right magnetised by the electoral fanaticism of the new far-right, with a Communist party attached to the stability of the current government, the fear regarding the country’s course after the pandemic increases. The Socialists occupation of the centre will bring about the consolidation of the liberal hegemony, further facilitated by the rise of the far-right. Such a political situation will require a popular response as well as to work towards organising the struggle against the ordinary vultures of the crisis.


[1] In the original: “celle qui permet également aux riches et aux pauvres de se trouver une multitude d’inférieurs sur lesquels ils doivent à tout prix conserver leur supériorité.”
Jacques Rancière, “Les fous et les sages – reflexions sur l fin de la présidence de Trump” Analyse Opinion Critique, 15.1.2021.

[2] The Democratic Liberation Movement of Portugal (Movimento Democrático de Libertação de Portugal) was a far-right political organisation with connections to the Catholic Church, aiming at putting an end to the revolutionary process that lasted from the 25th April 1974 until the 25th November 1975. The organisation was eventually dissolved in 1976.

[3] From Pedro Magalhães, political scientist, Twitter account