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Race controversy rattles Portuguese politics

Atualizado: 24 de mai.

Duke of Winterfell | Wikicommons

It began last Friday with a remark by Chega leader André Ventura on Portugal's ability to build a new Lisbon airport in less than 10 years: "Istanbul airport was built and it was operational in five years," Ventura said. "The Turks are not exactly known for being the hardest working people in the world."

Reacting immediately afterwards, left-wing MPs denounced the remark as racist and called on Speaker José Pedro Aguiar-Branco to condemn them.

However, Aguiar-Branco, from the ruling centre-right Social Democrats, and in stark contrast to the previous Socialist speaker, said that lawmakers have the right to express themselves freely and that he would not censor them.

In response, Socialist MP Alexandra Leitão asked Aguiar-Branco if parliamentarians can say that a "certain race or ethnicity is dumber or lazier or less worthy" than others.

Aguiar-Branco replied: "In my opinion, they can."

"Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution," Aguiar-Branco added. "Judgment of the political discourse made here (in parliament)... will be done by the people at the polls."

Later, when asked to comment on the case, President Marcelo said that he saw the exchange but would not comment on it.

A position similar to that of the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon, which issued a public note: "Turkey and Portugal maintain excellent relations, never letting prejudice affect this relationship, which has always been based on mutual respect".

Racist and misogynistic comments

The exchange sparked a heated debate on the portuguese society over whether or not such remarks should be considered as protected free speech.

Things took an grim turn when Socialist MP Isabel Moreira revealed that Chega's MPs regularly made racist and misogynistic comments and asides in Parliament.

She said: "Permanent offence and insult, especially of women, when we are passing to speak, in which I have heard things like cow, mooing, names that are usually called to openly lesbian MPs that I will not repeat out loud. I have heard, for example, them telling a black MP at midday: 'good evening, Madam MP', which is not the normal thing to say at midday to a black person."

Isabel Moreira revealed that women are the main targets of the insults and that the offences from Chega's benches are uttered with the microphone switched off so that they can't be held responsible:

"The worst offences, intimidations, are done with the microphone closed so as not to be heard and to be heard only by the person they are insulting, always women, or almost always women, or they do it in the corridors, when we are alone and no one is listening," she explained.

Later, the former Socialist Party deputy, Romualda Fernandes, confirmed on TV that she was one of the several victims of Chega's insults.

She said:"I can identify the deputy who directed those insults at me. When I open the door [to the Committee room], in broad daylight, he looks at me and says 'Good night.' I took that as an insult and understood what it was about from the tone, the mocking way he said it. [The deputy] continued laughing."

"In our parliamentary group meeting [of the Socialist Party], I raised the issue, which is an offense and was directed with the intent to insult me. To insult, not personally, but because of the color of my skin. At the time, I was told that this issue would be brought to the Committee of Leaders. But nothing happened."

Ventura was fined in 2020 for discriminatory remarks against the Roma people, and was also condemned for comments made about a Black lawmaker. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, he organised a demonstration to deny racism was a problem in Portugal.

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