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What explains CHEGA's success?

Atualizado: 15 de mar.

A number of explanations have been put forward to explain CHEGA’s electoral success. Here, we will focus only on those that seek to explain the party's vote share in the specific context of the 2024 election (e.g., not those that portray CHEGA’s rise as an inevitable result of broad structural transformations or as the product of a populist wave sweeping across the Europe and the Americas):


1. Corruption

The most obvious explanation for CHEGA’s result lies in the electorate’s frustration with the corruption scandals that brought about these elections in the first place. The judicial operation that took place on November 7, 2023, named “Operation Influencer”, sent shock waves through Portuguese society, with the arrest of two people from António Costa closest circle for alleged malfeasance, corruption of elected officials, and influence peddling in connection with four energy projects.

The Minister of Infrastructure, João Galamba, and the head of the Environment Agency, Nuno Lacasta, were also named as suspects, and police discovered €75,800 in undeclared cash stashed in Costa’s chief of staff office.

Even if Costa has not been formally charged with any crime, and the Public Prosecutors’ case suffers from evident flaws, the scandal has contributed to cement the idea that there is something intrinsically crooked about Portugal’s Socialist Party.

It hasn’t helped that in the previous months, the Government had been blighted by a number of scandals, including an irregular severance payment of €500,000 ($532,945) to a former TAP airline executive board member, who was then Secretary of State for the Treasury (which, in fact, led to Pedro Nuno Santos’s resignation as Minister of Infrastructure in 2022); suspicions of the instrumentalization of the Intelligence Services to recover a laptop containing information about TAP’s sale process; and a string of Government resignations over dubious business relations.

Moreover, the Socialists carry with them the inheritance of former socialist Prime Minister José Sócrates, who was indicted in 2014 for corruption and who, almost 10 years later, is still waiting for a judicial decision.

Put together, it should come to no surprise that CHEGA’s anti-corruption message resonated with voters this time. The party electoral platform for these elections was, after all, resumed to one sentence: “To clean Portugal”.

One CHEGA's billboards: "Portugal needs a cleaning!"

But the PS isn’t the only political party in Portugal dogged by corruption suspicions. Shortly after the elections were called, the center-right President of Madeira’s Regional Government, Miguel Albuquerque (PSD), was forced to resign over his involvement in a corruption probe that led to the arrest of the mayor of Funchal, Pedro Calado (also PSD), and two businessmen linked to the construction and tourism sector.

The ongoing cases against the former patriarch of the Espirito Santo family of bankers, Ricardo Salgado, who was once known as “the owner of all this” (“this” being Portugal), has also contributed to undermine trust in the entire political class. In 2014, during the last PSD-led government, his BES bank was rescued by taxpayers to the tune of 4.9 billion euros.

The AD has its own skeletons in the closet, including a controversial deal to buy German submarines in 2004. So voters had good reasons to suspect that, at least in this regard, things were not going to change much if the AD won.

Portugal ranked 34th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s (TI) 2023 Corruption Perceptions index, one position lower than in the previous year. According to TI, the fight against corruption continues to make no headway in Portugal, which is one of the countries in Europe with the greatest failings in terms of integrity in politics.

The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has also called on Portugal to improve the effectiveness of its system to promote integrity and prevent corruption in the top executive functions of the central government and in law enforcement agencies.


2.  Immigration

Others have argued that voters were moved by CHEGA’s anti-migrant stance.

There is no question Portugal’s migration landscape has swiftly changed over recent years. According to the Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, one of the leading research institutions in the country, the number of foreigner-born residents in Portugal in 2022 was 800,000, double the number 10 years ago, and half a million people have been granted nationality in the last 15 years. In 2022 alone, 118,000 immigrants entered Portugal, the highest figure since records began.

However, two factors should the need for caution when linking these figures to CHEGA’s electoral success. The first concerns the geographic distribution of CHEGA’s vote. A cursory comparison between a map of CHEGA’s results and a map of Portugal’s migrant population presents, with the Algarve’s exception (more on this below), a mirror-like image. CHEGA fared better in the countryside and particularly in Santarém and Alentejo. Meanwhile, Portugal’s migrant population seems heavily skewed towards the big urban centers, Lisbon and Porto, as well as the coastal areas. This suggests that migration may not have been such a relevant factor for CHEGA’s voters as one would predict – not, at least, in the sense of the oft-repeated link “more migrants, more CHEGA voters.”

We could still envisage a different type of impact on CHEGA support, one that stems from Gordon Allport’s contact theory (1954): the idea that intergroup contact under appropriate conditions can effectively reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. As follows from this, CHEGA’s geographic voting patterns shows precisely that more people supported the party, where they had less contact with migrants and thus less opportunities to check their prejudices. In-depth research would be required to check the validity of this hypothesis.

But there is an added reason for skepticism. According to The European Social Survey (ESS), which is now in its tenth round and involves almost 60,000 respondents in 31 European countries, Portugal is one of the countries where respondents report the greatest openness to immigrants and where this trend has increased since the beginning of the millennium. Crucially, both the perceptions of migrants as an "economic threat" and "cultural threat" have dropped in Portugal.

That conclusion jives with the recognition among business owners that “without immigrants, some economic sectors would collapse” – namely those of civil construction, domestic service and hospitality – a view echoed by the Portuguese Farmers Association and the Confederation of the Portuguese Industry.

Finally, widely distributed data released in December 2023 showed that migrants contributed 1.86 billion euros to Social Security in 2022, while they only benefited from around 257 thousand euros in social benefits, resulting in a positive balance of 1,604 million euros. These figures helped to show, on the eve of the election, that immigrants pay more into public finances than they take out.


3. Protest vote

Teachers’ protests. Doctors’ protests. Nurses’ protests. Court workers’ protests. Police forces’ protests. Farmers’ protests. Railway workers’ protests. Public servants’ protests. Affordable housing protests. Climate activists’ protests. Cost-of-living protests. To name only a few.

2023 may well have been the year of the protest in Portugal.

Portugal is one of Western Europe's poorest countries, with government data showing that the average monthly wage was around 1,200 euros ($1,268) in 2023. The monthly minimum wage was 760 euros.

With inflation hitting a 30-year high in 2022, many Portuguese families struggled to make ends meet. According to the most recent Living Conditions and Income Survey (ICOR), roughly 42% of the total Portuguese population (4.4 million people) would be poor without social security benefits.

After taking retirement and survivors' pensions taken into account, still 21.2 % of the population was at-risk-of-poverty in 2022.

The situation is particularly hard on the young. With salaries well below the income needed for independence in Portugal — in the 15–39 age group the average salary was calculated to be about 1,000 euros per month in 2021 - and rents in Lisbon jumping 65%  since 2015, many have opted to simply leave the country, while others have given up on traditional parties.

For a long time, the Communists CDU and the Left Bloc were the parties of protest in Portugal: the voice of those who feel humiliated and marginalized by the status-quo. However, they now seem to have lost that position to CHEGA.

The Left Bloc suffered a huge collapse in the 2022 election, dropping from 19 seats in the 230-seat parliament to five, a dismal performance that leader Mariana Mortágua attributes to tactical voting and fears of the far-right driving her party’s voters into the arms of the socialists. They maintained the 5 seats in these elections.

The situation is worse among the Communists, who went from being the third political force in 1987 with almost 700,000 votes (12.1%) to slightly more than 200,000 votes (3,3%) in these elections. The ultimate symbol of the party's electoral rout was its failure to elect a single MP in Beja (Alentejo), where it had elected every time since the end of the dictatorship.


4. Local factors

Since 1991, Portugal’s electoral districts map has only had two colors: the PS’s pink and the PSD’s orange. That cycle has now been shattered by Chega in Faro district, where it won 27.19% of the vote and elected three out of nine MPs.

So, what's the matter with the Algarve?

The first thing to point out is that CHEGA's vote share varied across Algarve municipalities: in Alcoutim it had less than 15% and in Albufeira it had more than twice that percentage. Whoever knows these two municipalities will quickly point out that they are two worlds apart: Alcoutim is one of the oldest, more deserted and dry municipalities in Portugal, whereas Albufeira is at the heart of the Algarve's tourism region. This suggest that in order to understand CHEGA's surge we have to dig deeper into the local factors that might increase its electoral appeal.

Though almost a quarter of the population in the Algarve is of foreign nationality, Loulé and Albufeira stand out as the municipalities with the highest number of immigrants. It is also important to keep in mind that the largest migrant communities in the Algarve are the British (almost 22,000), followed by Brazilians (19,450), the French (6,191), Italians (5,727) and Indians (5,492). As before, the link between CHEGA's rise and migration demands further exploration.

In regards to its socioeconomic profile, the region has a poverty level above the national average: 19% lived on less than €591 a month in 2022. Though it has one of the highest GDP's in Portugal, the Algarve has high school dropout rates (19.9% against the national average of 10.6%), housing costs (9.1% against 5 % in the country) and material and social deprivation rates (16.4% against 13.5%). It is also one of the regions in Portugal with the greatest inequality between rich and poor.

Another area where the Algarve stands out is the lack and price of housing. According to a recent study conducted by the Ministry of Economy, the Algarve is the worst region in the country in terms of housing affordability. In this regard, too, there are significant differences between the various municipalities: the municipalities of Vila do Bispo, Albufeira and Loulé had the lowest accessibility in 2021.

Finally, it didn't help that the AD’s chose Miguel Pinto Luz, "a candidate with no residence or emotional connection to the region", to head its list in the Algarve. In Faro district, the AD coalition ended up with a lower result (22.39%) than the PSD alone achieved in 2022 (24.35%).


5. The Media

Chega is the political party with the largest number of followers on social media and is the one that mobilises followers the most, with the highest number of interactions, according to a survey carried out by the University of Beira Interior (UBI).

According to athe study, between November 9, when the President announced the dissolution of the Assembly, and February 19, the date of the last TV debate between party leaders, André Ventura's party had a prominent presence on the main social networks.

Chega is the party with the most followers on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok. Except for X (formerly Twitter), where the Liberal Initiative leads, it dominates the online environment.

In the period under analysis, in which more than 11,600 publications and 10.2 million interactions were compiled on the platforms most used by the Portuguese, Chega achieved 2.3 million interactions.

But this not just about social media.

According to market study specialists Marktest, André Ventura was the second most talked about political leader in national TV channels.

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