Socialists conceding in Portuguese election seen as bellwether for Europe

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The ruling Socialists conceded defeat in one of the closest elections in Portuguese history, saying they would not challenge the victory of a center-right alliance in a vote that also saw major gains for the far right in one of Europe’s most reliably liberal countries.

With 99 percent of the vote counted and the highest turnout in two decades, the center-right Democratic Alliance (AD) — led by the Social Democrats — and the center-left Socialists were separated by only 438 votes, with both hovering near 29 percent. The far-right Chega Party, meanwhile, was overperforming in third with 18 percent, more than doubling its 2022 result.

Exit polls released after balloting stations closed on Sunday had suggested a clear center-right victory. But as the tallies were counted, official result reflected a photo finish — in part because of the extraordinary inroads made by the far right. By conceding, the Socialists, who have ruled since 2015, appeared to fend off the possibility that the center-right could break its pledge not to go into coalition with Chega to form a government. Instead, the Social Democrats appeared poised to forge a minority government with the aid of a party of fiscal conservatives that landed in fourth place.

The Socialists “didn’t win the elections. It will lead the opposition,” said Pedro Nuno Santos, leader of the Socialists and candidate for prime minister, told supporters in Lisbon early Monday. He said an analysis of the outstanding vote favored a victory for the center-right.

Nevertheless, Chega was widely seen as a major beneficiary of the night, and was pressuring the mainstream right to let it join any new conservative government. Together, with another conservative party that came in fourth, the center-right and the far right all told captured nearly 52 percent of the vote.

“The Portuguese gave [conservatives] a majority,” Chega’s head, André Ventura, told journalists in Lisbon. “We will be irresponsible if we don’t form a government.”

The Portuguese race is being closely watched on both sides of the Atlantic during a year when former U.S. president Donald Trump is seeking to take back the White House and far-right parties are polling strong in France, Austria, Germany and elsewhere.

“Portugal is a laboratory for the electoral year in Europe,” said António Costa Pinto, a political expert with the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon.

Cool to be far right? Young Europeans are stirring a political youthquake.

In Portugal, a country of 10.3 million, voters have been searching for an antidote to political corruption scandals, a housing crisis, high inflation and low wages. The election came four months after the Socialist government collapsed amid an influence-peddling investigation, and as the center-right Social Democrats faced their own financial scandal that forced the resignation of two party officials.

All eyes were on the far-right Chega Party, or “Enough” in English. Its campaign drew inspiration from the likes of Trump, Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and French nationalist Marine Le Pen. Chega cultivated a following among younger voters via social media.

Voters who supported Chega responded to the party’s anti-corruption message and its claims, despite a lack of evidence, that Portugal is being overrun by migrants who are committing more crimes. The party is led by Ventura, a 41-year-old former sportscaster with a massive social media reach. Fact-checking organizations say he has routinely spread misinformation.

“I want more control on migration so that we receive more qualified migrants,” said Rui Silva, 31, a Chega voter in a western Lisbon neighborhood. “It’s not fair that they come and use our National Health System and take advantage of everything we have.”

Sunday’s vote was triggered by the fall of the Socialist government under António Costa, an elder statesman of the European left who resigned as prime minister in November amid an investigation into alleged corruption in his administration’s handling of lithium mines and hydrogen projects. Costa — who is unrelated to the University of Lisbon’s Costa Pinto — has not been accused of any crime.

Costa’s replacement as head of the Socialist Party, Nuno Santos, resigned as infrastructure minister at the end of 2022 over a scandal surrounding Portugal’s state-owned airline company, TAP.

Luís Montenegro, head of the Social Democratic Party, has begun to mimic some of Chega’s harder line on migrants. Ventura, meanwhile, has pledged to soften some of his most extreme platform measures — such as chemical castration for some sex offenders — to enter a broad coalition of the right. But Montenegro has repeatedly ruled out a governing deal with Chega.

“No means no,” Montenegro told supporters last week, echoing his long stance that he would refuse a coalition deal with Chega.

Since the end of a right-wing dictatorship in 1974, and a short-lived military junta that followed a coup, Portugal has had several minority governments. But like much of the West, the country may be entering a new era of polarization and more bitter politics.

The Socialists had earlier said they would honor a minority government of the center-right to avoid the possibility of a broader right-wing coalition that includes Chega. But Montenegro declined to match that pledge. Despite the Socialist promise early Monday not to oppose the formation of a center-right minority government, it remained unclear for how long they would allow it to go unchallenged.

Since the start of the campaign, however, much of it has centered on preventing Chega’s rise.

The Expresso newspaper, Portugal’s largest, reported that President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa will “do anything” to avoid Chega being part of the next government. That raised eyebrows in a country where the president — though hailing from the center-right — serves as the ceremonial head of state.

“Chega is a party with anti-democratic and anti-constitutional positions,” said Filipe Alexandre, 60, a Socialist voter in western Lisbon. “I think they shouldn’t even be allowed in the democratic game.”

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