🔒 FT: Controversial far-right figure André Ventura shakes up Portugal’s election landscape

André Ventura, a former trainee priest turned far-right populist, is gaining traction in Portugal’s election campaign. Capitalising on economic despondency among the youth, Ventura’s party, Chega, may secure up to 20% of the vote, potentially influencing a right-of-center government formation. His controversial views, including nativist sentiments and anti-immigration stances, have sparked both support and criticism. As Portugal faces economic challenges, especially for its youth, Ventura’s promises resonate with discontented voters, raising concerns within the political landscape. The upcoming election on March 10 holds implications for the nation’s political future.

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By Barney Jopson in Porto

André Ventura capitalises on economic despondency of young Portuguese in election campaign ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The latest far-right populist on the rise in Europe is a former trainee priest and football pundit who is dominating Portugal’s election campaign with his brand of nativist anti-establishment venom.

André Ventura, a charismatic 41-year old labelled an opportunistic xenophobe by opponents, is riding high by capitalising on racist views in parts of the electorate and on the economic despondency of Portugal’s youth.

His party Chega, or “Enough”, is not on track to win the general election on March 10, but it is likely to cement its place as the third-largest force in Portuguese politics: the latest polls suggest it will secure up to 20 per cent of the vote.

That would hand Ventura a pivotal role because his support could enable the formation of a right-of-centre government to eject the ruling Socialists — but only if other parties are willing to work with him.

Pedro Nuno Santos, the Socialist candidate for prime minister, told the Financial Times that Chega “have a racist and xenophobic project that will divide our society. And we want to stop it”.

At a campaign event near Porto, Ventura sought to position himself at the heart of Europe’s far-right populist movement. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the League party, was “a very good friend”, he told the FT. He also had “a great relation” with Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam firebrand seeking to form a government in the Netherlands.

“I believe we are united. We are strong,” Ventura said.

In a zigzagging life, Ventura chose to be baptised as a Catholic at 14 and later spent a year at a seminary studying to be a priest. He changed tack multiple times, becoming a law professor, a tax inspector, and a TV football pundit whose role was to be a fanatical supporter of Lisbon club Benfica.

Initially a member of the centre-right Social Democratic party, Ventura ran as a candidate in a 2017 local election and used the chance to catapult himself on to the national stage by launching a tirade against Portugal’s small Roma community.

In a broad-brush attack, he blamed the ethnic minority for crime, squatting and allegedly exploiting the social welfare system. His comments drew widespread condemnation, including from party colleagues. But Ventura concluded that they resonated with some voters.

He quit the SD the following year and in 2019 he established his own party, Chega, vowing to fight for “the good Portuguese”.

Vítor Matos, author of a book about Ventura, wrote that he “used an ethnic group and a cultural community — and the underlying prejudices of the majority — as a marketing stunt to win notoriety”.

Since then he has deployed language redolent of the “great replacement” theory that Europe’s culture is being diluted by immigration, and has protested on the streets with Movement Zero, a group of discontented police officers with suspected extremist ties.

Read more: 🔒 Portugal’s economic dream turned political nightmare

In the current campaign, he has embraced the support of Brazil’s former far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, whose appeal to devout Christian voters he wants to mimic.

Ventura’s mix of policy promises includes slashing taxes while raising public pensions, stamping out the black market economy, establishing immigration quotas and limiting newcomers’ access to welfare benefits.

“Chega brings to the surface all the discontent of people who are not happy with the system, with everyday life,” said Paula Espírito Santo, a political-science professor at the University of Lisbon. “They do not need to be coherent or have solutions that are feasible.”

The snap election was triggered by a government scandal that played perfectly into Ventura’s hands. António Costa, the Socialist prime minister in power since 2015, resigned last year when police started a probe into alleged corruption.

Although Costa has not been formally accused of wrongdoing, the saga appeared to vindicate a long-standing Ventura slogan: “Portugal needs a clean-up”, which appears on campaign billboards featuring Costa’s crossed-out face.

Portugal’s business community and mainstream politicians are appalled at the prospect of electoral success for Chega. Armindo Monteiro, president of CIP, Portugal’s main business lobby, said the party was “bad for democracy”.

Luís Montenegro, leader of the centre-right Democratic Alliance coalition, which includes the Social Democrats, said Chega lacked the “responsibility” and “maturity” needed to govern. The Democratic Alliance is unlikely to win a majority on its own, but Montenegro has ruled out any kind of pact with Ventura.

Once votes are counted, however, he could come under intense pressure from members of his own party to do so. Portugal’s president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who must nominate a new prime minister after the election, could also have a say.

On immigration, Ventura has been accused of stoking antipathy towards the country’s growing number of residents from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. But in Elvas, a municipality in central Portugal where Chega won the highest vote share in 2022, tensions with the Roma community are still the issue.

Mário Gonçalves, a Chega voter who owns a supermarket in the village of São Vicente, said: “Chega is not a racist, xenophobic party . . . We’re not saying gypsies are bad.” Many worked and paid taxes, he noted. “We simply want to punish those who choose the path of criminality, and we want those who don’t work to contribute something.”

Chega’s voter base is dominated by men under 50 who did not go to university, according to polls. Since 2022, when Chega won 7 per cent of the vote in a general election, its support has grown most sharply among 18-24 year olds, according to Pedro Magalhães, a political scientist at Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences.

Many young people are troubled by what they see as grim economic prospects in Portugal, where 21 per cent of workers are paid the minimum wage of €11,480 per year and housing costs have soared, partly as a result of well-off expats pushing up property prices.

At the campaign event near Porto, Ventura was quizzed by Inês Lauro, a 19-year old social work student, about how he would dissuade young people like her from leaving the country. The key thing, he told an audience assembled by a group called the Thinkers’ Club, was to help make housing affordable again, but via government loan guarantees and not handouts.

“I truly liked the way Ventura talked about that,” Lauro said. But she was wary of more “extreme” parts of his manifesto, which she hoped would soften. “I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that I can vote for Chega in four years.”

Additional reporting bySérgio Aníbal in Lisbonand Carmen Muela in Madrid

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© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.

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