Monday, April 15, 2024

Voting under way in Portugal general elections amid populist surge | Elections News

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Voters head for the polls in an early election that could see country join a shift to the right across Europe.

Voting is under way in Portugal’s snap parliamentary elections as the two moderate blocs, the centre left and the centre right, are vying to win power amid the growing clout of the far right.

Polling stations opened on Sunday at 8am (08:00 GMT) and close at 7pm (19:00 GMT) in mainland Portugal and an hour later on the Azores archipelago. Results are expected around midnight. There are nearly 11 million registered voters to elect the 230 members of the Assembly of the Republic.

The issues dominating the campaign in Western Europe’s poorest country include a crippling housing crisis, low wages, sagging healthcare and corruption, seen by many as endemic to the mainstream parties, which have alternated power since the end of a dictatorship five decades ago.

The far-right Chega party is looking to capitalise on corruption allegations that have dogged the two main parties – the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD).

The general elections are being held four months after Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s sudden resignation amid a corruption investigation.

“I hope life gets better than what it is now,” 86-year-old Diamantino Vieira told Reuters news agency as he waited to vote at a polling station in the northern city of Espinho, where Luis Montenegro, who is at the helm of the Democratic Alliance (AD) of right-leaning parties, will also cast his ballot.

People queue to vote, outside a polling station during the general election in Lisbon, Portugal, on March 10, 2024 [Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters]

“It’s shaping up to be a very tight election,” Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Lisbon, the capital, said.

Butler said that the Socialists want to extend their eight years in power while the centre-right hopes to win the elections. “Both these parties have been blighted over the years by a number of corruption scandals – something on many voters’ minds,” she said.

“Some voters are fed up with the political system, they want something different, they are looking for alternatives. That’s the sort of sentiment that has fueled the rise of the hard right Chega party.

Far-right push anti-immigration agenda

The AD, which compromises Montenegro’s PSD and two smaller conservative parties, leads in most opinion polls, but it could struggle to govern without Chega’s supporting votes.

Montenegro has so far ruled out any deals with the radical populists, who want a government role.

The ruling PS, now led by Pedro Nuno Santos after Costa’s resignation, could attempt a replay of their old alliances with the Left Bloc and the Communists that allowed them to govern between 2015 and 2019, if the combined left gets more than 115 seats.

Surveys suggest support for Chega’s anti-establishment message, its promises to sweep away corruption and hostility to what it sees as “excessive” immigration, has roughly doubled since the last election in 2022, though it remains in third place.

On Friday, conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa told Expresso newspaper he would do everything he can to prevent Chega from gaining power, drawing criticism as the head of state is mandated to remain neutral.

Political scientist Antonio Costa Pinto of Lisbon University said Portugal “has entered the dynamic of many European democracies”, in which the centre-right parties are being challenged by far-right parties.

A potential AD minority government, even supported by the smaller centre-right Liberal Initiative, would likely need votes from Chega to pass legislation, making it relatively fragile as the nationalist and Islamophobic Chega could topple it at any point.

However, “a PS victory with an absolute right-wing majority in parliament would be the most complex, most unstable scenario”, Costa Pinto said.

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