On April 25th the overthrow of Western Europe’s longest dictatorship was marked by a commemorative speech by the Portuguese President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. De Sousa used the 44th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution as an opportunity to speak out against the rise of populism and the need for politicians to work together in order to renew the political process.
Portugal is one of the European nations in which populist political forces have failed to make inroads into its democratic institutions. The country is therefore in a strong position to voice its defence of conciliatory and progressive policies.
How Democracy Came into Bud
The 1974 Carnation Revolution brought an end to the right-wing Salazar Estado Novo regime, which had wielded power in Portugal for 48 years. Under the leadership of General Antonio Spinola and with the support of the civilian population, the Armed Forces Movement managed to peacefully oust Portugal’s authoritarian Caetano government. This quick, bloodless coup laid the groundwork for democracy to take hold in Portugal.
In the span of just over a decade, Portugal underwent a dramatic political transformation. Its former colonies of Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cape Verde Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, and Angola all received independence from Portuguese rule. In 1982, civilian rule was formally established and just four years later Portugal became a member of the European Economic Community.
Portugal’s recent liberation from authoritarian right-wing rule is one reason why, unlike other European countries, it hasn’t flirted with populism. Populism is a political ideology that relies on an antagonistic approach to political debate and promotes a radical break with existing political consensus. In Europe, populists have supported initiatives that have targeted Muslims, restricted immigration, and would undermine the solidarity of the European Union.
The Portuguese have shown little enthusiasm for this sort of negative rhetoric. In the 2015 election, just 0.5% of votes cast went to the Partido National Renovador (PNR), Portugal’s far right party. While there are two Eurosceptic left-wing parties with representation in parliament, the Portuguese are broadly pro-EU. In fact, the vast majority of the Portuguese electorate (80%) voted for parties that support EU membership.
An Imperfect Democracy
Like many other western countries, Portugal has experienced a decline in democratic engagement. In the most recent presidential and parliamentary election, voter turnout was just 49% and 56%, respectively. This can be partially explained by a low degree of political trust amongst Portugal’s electorate.
Political trust refers to the degree of support the citizenry has for its political institutions. In a poll conducted by European Social Survey, Portugal ranked 4th last amongst 32 European countries for trust in politicians. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that high levels of political trust are often found under illiberal regimes, with the Nordic countries being one of the few exceptions. This isn’t necessarily a sign that Portugal’s democracy is on weak footing. What it does imply is that Portugal’s politicians need to do more to inspire the confidence of the electorate.
Why Disengagement Hasn’t Led to Populism
Portugal isn’t unique in its history with authoritarianism, and the same lag in political participation has also transpired in other European countries. This leads to the question of why Portugal hasn’t fallen prey to populism.
One reason is its experience with immigration. In 2016, the country welcomed 7,800 non-EU immigrants, many of whom came from former colonies and speak Portuguese, making it easier for them to assimilate. Many of Portugal’s Southern European neighbours took on numbers five time that large, with little language or cultural connections to their new habitants – the combination of which created discord.
Portugal’s location also means that it attracts fewer refugees. European countries have seen a dramatic influx of refugees, but only 250 people applied for asylum in Portugal last year. In comparison, Italy and France respectively registered 11,080 and 15,240 asylum seekers.
Additionally, the Portuguese government is composed of a broad, left-leaning coalition. Currently, the socialist Prime Minister, Antonia Costa, leads a government with the support of the Left Bloc, Communist and Green parties. This means that credit and responsibility for policies is spread across parliament, including those factions that had traditionally been excluded from government.
Lastly, Portugal’s governing coalition has steered the economy back to health, expanding GDP by 2.7%. Furthermore, its unemployment rate has been falling and is now lower than both Greece and France. Speaking in front of the European Parliament in March, Prime Minister Costa argued that the country’s economic policies had reignited Portuguese citizens’ “trust in the democratic institutions and in their belief in the European Union.” The Portuguese economy’s impressive improvement has undermined the motivation behind many other European populist parties.
Portugal: A Voice for Europe?
Europe needs credible voices willing to defend civil liberties, pro-growth policies, and European solidarity. While Portugal is a smaller country with respect to some of its fellow EU member states, it shouldn’t hesitate to stand up for those values that have made Europe the peaceful and cooperative union of nations it is today. Populism may be gaining strength across Europe, but Portugal shows that its rise isn’t inevitable and that politicians can enact policies that weaken its appeal.