democraciaAbierta: Opinion

What Portugal can teach us about the far Right

Unless progressive social movements challenge the shortcomings of liberal democracy, the appeal of ‘anti-system’ candidates will only grow

Luis Gouveia Junior
Luis Gouveia Junior
5 March 2021, 12.00am
André Ventura, leader of the far-Right party Chega, at a protest in Lisbon, Portugal, in June 2020
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Paulo Alexandrino/Global Imagens/Atlantico Press/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

I was unlucky enough to be living in Rio de Janeiro when Jair Bolsonaro, before he became Brazil’s president, was elected to Congress in 2014 with the most votes in the state’s history. Then, two years later, I was living in the US when Trump won the Republican primaries. This year, in Portugal, I am living a similar nightmare.

André Ventura, the local figurehead of the far Right, continues to gain ground at startling speed. After his party, Chega, received just 1.29% of the vote in 2019’s legislative elections, Ventura jumped to 12% in the presidential election of January this year.

On the American continent, it seemed easy to understand Bolsonaro and Trump’s electoral success. Brazil and the US both faced undeniable problems, and the two candidates provided simple, if racist and undemocratic answers. Bolsonaro was a strongman who proposed to crack down on the violence and crime that plagues Rio de Janeiro. Trump was a voice for the part of his country that blamed immigrants for taking their jobs.

How does Ventura manage to make his pitch under such adverse conditions?

What about André Ventura? On the face of it, the social context would suggest that there’s little potential for a far-Right surge. Portugal has received fewer refugees recently than most other European countries. It is the third safest country in the world, according to the Global Peace Index. Roma people, who are targeted by André Ventura’s rhetoric, represent less than 0.5% of the country's population.

Before the pandemic, the country’s economy was recovering and growing. Even in the context of the pandemic, the Portuguese government was seen as an example to be followed during the first wave. There are no major cases or investigations of systemic corruption in Portuguese politics – except for the former prime minister, José Socrates, that is, in a process that has been going on for some years.

Of course, Portugal has social problems. Being one of the poorest countries in Europe is perhaps the clearest. Yet Ventura does not offer any new economic arguments, sticking within the framework already set by the traditional Portuguese right-wing parties, the PSD and CDS.

The question, then, is how does Ventura manage to make his pitch under such adverse conditions?

A systemic crisis

One possible explanation – that the far Right presents itself as the only anti-system voice, and appeals to voters who are disillusioned with the system – brings the examples of Brazil, the US and Portugal together. The anti-system argument is not new, with authors such as Boaventura de Sousa Santos having discussed it at length within the Portuguese context. What is interesting, however, is that the anti-system discourse alone seems to be enough for the far Right to gain political ground.

In Brazil, it was impossible to separate the anti-system rhetoric from corruption and criminality. In Portugal, the feeling is that the far Right is simply against what's there.

What’s “there” is liberal democracy, an increasingly neglected concept across the world. In Europe, electoral abstention rates remain high. In Latin America, fewer and fewer people see democracy as “the best form of government”, according to Latinobarometer. In Brazil, Bolsonaro voters even express nostalgia for the authoritarianism of the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

The problem is that the current system is not only unable to provide answers but also to reflect on itself. Liberal democracy is still boasting about its triumphant victory at the end of the Cold War: the supposed “end of history”. Winners don’t ask questions or provide answers.

Yet social problems do not stop, and people continue to ask for solutions. Police forces continue to treat people differently based on skin colour; justice systems cover up cases of corruption; women continue to have to fight for their emancipation; new generations are unemployed and lack the prospect of professional advancement. On the other hand, neoliberal globalisation is advancing, along with income inequality and the environmental crisis. Global hunger and poverty have not ceased to exist, and neither have wars.

All out of answers

In this chaotic environment, liberal democracy remains as silent as the dead. There are no answers. The centre does its job of keeping things as they are. Liberals remain anaesthetised by their victory against the Communist bloc, without seeing the need to restructure their own global system and avoid its possible setbacks. The Left has accepted the defeat of its utopia, and thus, lost its raison d'être as a transforming force.

Among social movements, a paradox emerges. Feminists, environmentalists, Black movements and human rights activists have become defenders of a “democratic” system that also fails to respond to their political demands.

It is in this context that people begin to seek answers in any voice that attacks the system. Today, that role has been exclusive to populists, to the undemocratic far Right. These are the only ones who seem to have the courage to criticise “democracy” and the entire system. Because of the accommodation that social movements and progressive forces have made with liberal democracy, these movements are unable to convincingly challenge the far Right.

The Portuguese case shows that people are tired of the political and economic system

The fundamental question posed here is: do we live in a democracy?

The acclaimed political scientist Robert Dahl gives a straight answer: no, we live in a polyarchy, a government of the many. In this view, the liberal democratic model has democratic aspects, but is not the complete version. The government of all, by all and for all is something yet to be achieved. The idea of polyarchy has never reached the masses, even though it is widespread within the academic context. By introducing this concept to wider debate, democracy can again be seen as a goal to be achieved, and not the current reality.

Certainly, a plurality of actions must be taken to prevent the advancement of undemocratic forces. The psychological part is, however, the first and perhaps the most fundamental.

Social movements must again have the option of looking at what exists and saying that liberal democracy is not their ultimate goal. If not, then democratic movements will continue to defend the indefensible. The Portuguese case shows that people are tired of the political and economic system, which seems unable to offer enough to those who do not feel the pat of the invisible hand.

Making a distinction between liberal polyarchy and full democracy is the first step in releasing progressive forces from their bonds. It paves the way to creating a proactive rather than merely reactive alternative to the far Right.

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