Lessons from the Portuguese election



The worst mistake the left can make is to devalue the impact of the neofascists' counteroffensive. If they are not interrupted, they will advance

“Doubt is the waiting room of knowledge”
(Popular Portuguese saying).


This Sunday, March 10th, the most important election took place in Portugal since the Carnation Revolution. There was a shift of votes to the right and an earthquake of votes to the extreme right. On April 25th, the 50th anniversary of the overthrow of the Salazar dictatorship, the most reactionary government of the last half century will be in power!

The neo-fascist Chega party won a spectacular victory, ending a decades-long cycle of alternating center-right and center-left governments. Even if he is not incorporated into the ministry, André Ventura will exert immense pressure on Luís Montenegro's government.

It was the election with the highest number of voters since 2002: 6.140.289. 750 thousand more than in 2022. The reactionary camp, Aliança Democrática and Chega had the best vote of this century: 2.920.086, 870 thousand more than in 2022. However, the center-right had only a modest increase (+146.700 votes ). The left, from the Socialist Party to the Communist Party, had the second worst result of the century, with 2.436.403. It was only worse in 2011, where, even so, it had more votes than the right. The PS lost 488 thousand votes for 2022.

Chega had more than 1.100.000 votes, increasing 723 thousand – a number very similar to the drop in abstention. The Left Bloc increased slightly compared to 2022 (+ 33.800 votes, to 274 thousand); but had its second worst electoral result since 2002. The PC continued its decline, with the worst result ever (202.565); lost around 34 thousand more votes.

In short, the sinking of the PS government, after the resignation of Antonio Costa, due to a suspicious investigation by the Public Ministry, two years after achieving an absolute majority, was disconcerting. But not unpredictable.


The Lula government has already completed a little more than a year of management, but the country remains fragmented. This confirms that, although there is a politically better relationship of forces, because Lula is in the Planalto, the social relationship of forces has not yet reversed: (a) the different opinion polls confirm that, approximately, half of the population approves of the government and the other half disapproves, with small variations. Variations in long series remain around the margins of error.

There are discrepancies between support for Lula, 47,4% versus 45,9%, and the 40% who say they disapprove of the government (in January, this figure was 39%). 38% approve (a drop of four percentage points compared to the previous survey), while more than 18% rate the management as regular.[I] (b) the government's performance so far has failed to reduce the influence of the extreme right, which maintains an audience of around a third of the population.[ii]

(c) the sociocultural division remains the same. Bolsonarism preserves greater influence among the middle classes who earn above two minimum wages, in the southeast and south, and among evangelicals.[iii] Lulism is more influential among the poorest majority, at the extremes of education, the least educated, and those with higher education, among Catholics and in the Northeast.[iv] In short, there are few qualitative changes. But this picture does not allow for reassuring conclusions. Do we have nothing to learn from the defeat of Peronism in Argentina, and of the PS in Portugal? Not even any doubt about the danger of the line of uninterrupted concessions? What will prevail will be more turns to the “center”?

The government is not stronger, even though the contrast is evident in comparison with Jair Bolsonaro's government. After a year of government, fluctuations in the degrees of support or rejection are small, but there is a more pronounced downward bias at the beginning of 2024. Shifts of this type are never monocausal. There are always many factors that affect the consciousness of tens of millions in such an unequal country. The media exploitation of the escapes from a maximum security prison, the massacres in Baixada Santista and in communities in Rio de Janeiro, the growth of femicides, and the theft of cell phones during Carnival, increased the uneasiness.

The largest dengue epidemic as a side effect of a scorching summer, the precursor to a year that is also expected to break all historical records for rising temperatures. It should not surprise us that, by far, the worst results are concentrated among those who earn more than three minimum wages, with average education, older men and from the Southeast to the South, and evangelicals. That is, in Jair Bolsonaro's electorate. After all, the fundamental fact of the situation was the demonstration on November 25th on Avenida Paulista, which increased the cohesion of the far-right movement, including the ocean of Israeli flags. The Bolsonarist trap returned to the streets like a neofascist avalanche. A trap that posed a challenge. Why?


The path of political struggle is winding and even labyrinthine, full of curves, ups and downs, it is never a straight line. The majority of the PT leadership hoped that the exasperation and fatigue of the far-right government would be enough for Lula to defeat it in 2022. They bet on slow patience. He won, but it was close. The Lula government is now betting that good management, which responds to at least some of the people's urgent needs through “deliveries” will be enough to win in 2026.

Jair Bolsonaro will not act like this: a quietist waiting tactic. Bolsonarism is a combat current. The far right knows the “pathology” of its social base. Such an unequal society is preserved because those with material and social privileges fight furiously to defend them. He knows the arrogance of the new bourgeois generation at the head of agribusiness that accumulates sociocultural grudges against the more cosmopolitan world of big cities that despises them as sexist brutes and global warming deniers.

He knows the arrogance of a portion of the middle classes poisoned by racist and homophobic hatred and the loss of social prestige. He is aware of the anti-intellectual distrust fueled by neo-Pentecostal corporate churches. Without very serious changes in life experience – increased wages, decent jobs, quality education, stronger SUS, access to owning a home – it is not possible to divide this social base.

Defeating Bolsonarism requires a willingness to fight, ability to maneuver, audacity to pivot, courage to stratagem, willingness to confront, constancy and restraint to gain time, and then a new pivot and measurement of forces. But so far, the government has essentially compromised. He bet on “pacification”. Almost never one step forward, and then many steps back.

There are many on the Marxist left who describe this evolution as a tendency towards polarization. In situations of stability of the liberal-democratic regime, the majority of the population is politically located in the center of the political spectrum, supporting the center-right or center-left, which alternate in the management of the State. It has been like this since the end of the dictatorship, with three center-right governments and then four PT governments. This was the key to the longest period, thirty years (1986/2016) of stability of the liberal democratic regime.

This stage, which was a hypothesis that Marxism considered unlikely in peripheral countries, but became possible after the end of the USSR, has ended. One of the biggest difficulties for the left is admitting that it is over. But what came later cannot be explained in terms of polarization. Polarization happens when extremes become stronger. This is not what we have been experiencing in Brazil since 2016. Since the institutional coup, and as an effect of the inversion of the social relationship of forces, only the extreme right has grown and “hardened”, exerting “gravity” pressure like a drag of influence history of the traditional center-right (MDB, PSDB, União Brasil).

One-sided drag is not polarization. Asymmetric polarization is more elegant, but remains disproportionate. In the left field, broadly speaking, positions are maintained, but radicalization does not occur. Therefore, the threat of neofascism and its project of Bonapartist subversion of the regime remains a real danger on the horizon.


Many factors explain this moderation. Fear and insecurity still prevail in the labor and union movement. Among left-wing people, the willingness to fight is not high. It's not much different in popular social movements. But the most important thing is the limits of the Lula government itself. They are expressed in all areas, but in none has it been more serious, in recent weeks, than in the attitude towards the Armed Forces. Even after complicity in the coup became clear. The decision not to take advantage of the opportunity of the 40th anniversary of the 1964 military coup for an initiative of mass education and political mobilization was demoralizing.

The worst mistake the left could make would be to devalue the impact of this neo-fascist counteroffensive. If they are not interrupted, they will move forward. Next March 14th, Thursday: Who ordered Marielle to be killed? And on Saturday, March 23, on the streets, across the country: No amnesty, Dictatorship never again, Prison for Bolsonaro, Free Palestine!

* Valerio Arcary is a retired professor of history at the IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo). [https://amzn.to/3OWSRAc]


[I] https://www.cartacapital.com.br/politica/governo-lula-pela-primeira-vez-atlas-capta-desaprovacao-superando-a-aprovacao/

[ii] On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is a Bolsonarist and 5 are PT members, 25% declare themselves to be extreme Bolsonarists, in position 1, and there are 7% who see themselves as more moderate Bolsonarists, in position 2. The rate of Brazilians who are extremely PT members, which are placed in position 5 on the scale, was 32% at the end of 2022, fluctuated to 30% in March of this year, to 29% in June and now remains at 29%. Moderate PT members, in position 4, were 9% in December 2022, 10% in both March and June of this year, and now they are 11%.


[iii] The rate of extreme Bolsonaristas is above the average among Brazilians with a family income of 5 to 10 salaries (33%), in the South region (33%), in the North and Central-West regions as a whole (34%) and in the evangelical segment ( 38%). Idem.

[iv] The most extreme PT members, in turn, have above-average representation in the range of 45 to 59 years old (39%), among Brazilians who studied up to elementary school (44%), among the poorest (37%), in Northeast (44%) and among Catholics (37%). Idem.

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