Given the circumstances, the presidential election was a marvel of organization, revealing a civic-mindedness that may have come as a surprise even to the well-advised. The abstention rate was high, but still much lower than predicted.
There were two major winners: the sitting President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, and the Socialist Party’s (PS) general secretary, António Costa. The former, because of how he made himself present; the latter, because of how he made himself absent. In times of pandemic, this massive win promises to deliver the political stability the Portuguese have been longing for during the present tumultuous period of existential insecurity.
There followed two half-winners – Ana Gomes (AG) and André Ventura (AV). AG proved that political dignity is possible, even under the most adverse circumstances. Despite being a member of PS and a former member of the European Parliament for PS, she ran without the official backing of her own party, which chose not to make any specific voting recommendation. Her main victory resided in affirming the strength and courage of the Socialist Party’s left wing. Who can forget the unfortunate statement by PS president Carlos César upon AG’s launching of her candidacy, and his thinly disguised disgust for his fellow party member? Her victory was conditioned by the fact that she failed to build an alliance with the other party families on the left, pay more attention to young people, and make better use of the social networks.
AV, the candidate of the far-right Chega (“Enough!”) party, was a false half-winner, his victory conditioned only by the goals he cunningly set for himself. From this point of view he was, indeed, a winner. He set some risky goals, only to artificially inflate the breadth of his proposals, but the actual goals were not achieved. The strength of the far right rests on five main pillars.
First, the rise of the far right, a worldwide phenomenon which, albeit with different nuances (and the occasional concurrence of religious conservatism), has shaken the world over the last decade. It was somewhat late to arrive in Portugal, which can actually be an advantage, in view of the fact that the social and political disasters into which people are led when ruled by the far right are now becoming all too clear. We need only look at the US, Brazil and India. The novel generation of fascists rises to power democratically, but, once it holds power, it does not exercise it democratically, nor does it relinquish power democratically if defeated in elections.
Second, the repulsive deepening of social inequalities, the eroding of the expectations of a decent life for the vast majority of people, the abyssal fear of sudden poverty, the abandoning of the hinterland populations, the lack of access to public – notably health – services.
Third, a pillar that constitutes a Portuguese specificity: the failure to bring to trial the atrocities and violence committed by fascism and colonialism and to educate the young generations about this dark period in our history, a period that was much longer than the democratic system in which we have lived since 1974. When you are not taught what the past was like, the present seems perfidiously perennial.
Fourth, the role of the media and social networks. The far right’s relationship with the traditional media has followed the same pattern worldwide: initial dazzlement followed by harassment and predominant use of social networks. The logic of dazzlement dominated this election process almost until its conclusion. Many were probably shocked to see the new generation of interviewers-inquisitors doing everything they could to center the “debates” on whether AV would be accepted in a rightist coalition rather than on the substance of his proposals. The dazzlement only began to dwindle when journalists started being insulted as enemies and windshields were smashed to pieces.
Fifth, in the absence of alternatives to neoliberalism, injustice, racism and sexism, the populations that have been rendered vulnerable tend to believe that their aggressors are those who are even more victimized than they are, be they Roma, immigrants or black populations. Thus, a victim-against-victim logic emerges to fuel the politics of resentment, which is the preferred tool of the far right. Portugal’s democrats, who make up the vast majority of the country, need to know how to deal with these five pillars, and thus prevent the end of the dream from being followed by an even longer nightmare.
The biggest loser of the election was the Social Democratic Party (PSD). The political mistake made by its secretary-general when – going counter to the main European parties of the same political family – he first admitted in principle, and then implemented in the Azores islands, an alliance with the far-right party/candidate, showed that he may be good at management, but his political culture and vision are not equal to the challenges posed by the extraordinary circumstances with which we are faced in Europe and the world at large. He ought to know that, whether in Europe or in the rest of the world, from Hungary and Poland to the US, Brazil and India, the far right has no solutions to protect life or improve the economy. It is efficient at destroying, but is totally incapable of building anything in democracy, for the simple reason that the solution it offers is to destroy democracy. To put it differently, it knows how to smash furniture, but it doesn’t know how to make a table, let alone put food on it.
The left was defeated too, mainly because it did not know how to unite. No one really understood what the substantive political differences were between Ana Gomes, João Ferreira (Portuguese Communist Party) and Marisa Matias (Bloco de Esquerda – “Left Bloc”). They actually unlearned what they had learned in previous elections. Political calculation trumped politics. The forces to the left of the Socialist Party suffered a crushing defeat, especially in the case of the Left Bloc. I hope the current leaders will learn the two main lessons to be drawn from this disaster. First, a good candidate is not enough to correct a serious political mistake, such as the one the party made when it decided to vote against the 2021 Budget. In these times of too much fear and too little hope due to the pandemic, it would have been crucial to be part of a governance solution that, while not perfect, is neither more nor less efficient in fighting against the pandemic than the solutions adopted in other EU countries we tend to look up to. BE’s defection emboldened the right, which then undertook to isolate the government and forced BE into a position where it almost had to apologize for having voted against the Budget. Second, in the current international situation, the anti-system has been hijacked by the far right. The reason is simply that the anti-system is no longer called socialism or communism, but rather dictatorship and fascism, no matter how heavily disguised as “illiberal democracy”. The system is democracy with all its (more and more serious) shortcomings and (for vast minorities, less and less vital) virtues.
Nowadays the left should fight to enhance the virtues and neutralize the vices. This we call radicalizing democracy. Given that there is no far left, BE is part of the system, and it is in that capacity that it is supposed to agree and disagree. This means that under no circumstances should it give ammunition or cede ground to the anti-democrats. The two extremes no longer connect, for the simple reason that there is only one extreme, the extreme right. Unless these lessons are learned, BE could disappear, which would be an irreparable loss to the lefts and dangerously undermine democracy.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.