Centre-right and centre-left neck and neck in Portugal's tight election

Populist right wing Chega supporters react during the announcement of the first electoral results at their party headquarter in Lisbon, Sunday, March 10, 2024.
Populist right wing Chega supporters react during the announcement of the first electoral results at their party headquarter in Lisbon, Sunday, March 10, 2024. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Daniel Bellamy with AP
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Meanwhile in third place the far-right Chega (Enough) party surged in popularity. It's on course to get 18% - 11% more than in the previous election in 2022.

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"The final result will probably not be known today," the outgoing prime minister António Costa said late on Sunday evening. 

With 98.94% of the votes counted at 0050CET on Monday the results were:

The centre-right Democratic Alliance, a grouping led by the Social Democratic Party, is on 28.67%.

The centre-left Socialist Party is in second place with 28.66%.

The far-right, Chega (Enough) party is third with 18.05%.

First reactions from leading politicians

"Chega could reach more than 20 percent of the votes tonight. It's an absolutely historic result", André Ventura, the leader of the far-right party said. "The Portuguese clearly said they want a two-party government: Chega and the Democratic Alliance," he added.

First exit poll at 2110 CET:

Earlier in the evening a widely regarded exit poll by the Catholic University/ RTP had put the centre-right ahead, and the far-right Chega party at 14%-17% of the vote.

The poll predicted 29-33% of the vote for the centre-right Democratic Alliance, a grouping led by the Social Democratic Party. The centre-left Socialist Party gathered 25-29%, the poll indicated.

Populist party Chega (Enough) may have got 14-17% in third place, it suggested, up from 7% at the last election in 2022, in a drift to the political right witnessed elsewhere in the European Union.

The poll by Portugal’s Catholic University was published by public broadcaster RTP and in previous elections has proved largely accurate.

The Centre for Studies and Opinion Polls (Cesop) at the university earlier estimated turnout at between 62 and 68 percent. In comparison, in the 2022 general election, it was 51.46 percent.

A US based analyst suggested that this could help the far-right Chega party.

The election at a glance

A slew of recent corruption scandals has tarnished the two parties that have alternated in power for decades — the centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right Social Democratic Party, which is running with two small allies in a coalition it calls Democratic Alliance. Those traditional parties are still expected to collect most of the votes.

Public frustration with politics-as-usual had already been percolating before the outcries over graft. Low wages and a high cost of living — worsened last year by surges in inflation and interest rates — coupled with a housing crisis and failings in public health care contributed to the disgruntlement.

The election is taking place because Socialist leader António Costa resigned in November after eight years as prime minister amid a corruption investigation involving his chief of staff. Costa hasn’t been accused of any crime.

The Social Democrats, too, were embarrassed just before the campaign by a graft scandal that brought the resignation of two prominent party officials.

Voting began at 8 a.m. (0800 GMT) and most ballot results were expected within hours of polling stations closing at 8 p.m. (2000 GMT).

The far-right factor

If the first exit poll is accurate, it means the Populist party Chega (Enough) has gained around seven percent more of the vote in this election - seemingly a bigger gain than any other party.

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That suggests it will be the third most-voted party in a political shift to the right that has already been seen elsewhere in Europe. Spain and France have witnessed similar trends in recent years.

Chega could even end up in the role of kingmaker if a bigger party needs the support of smaller rivals to form a government.

Chega party leader Andre Ventura has cannily plugged into the dissatisfaction and has built a following among young people on social media. Just five years old, Chega collected its first seat in Portugal’s 230-seat Parliament in 2019. That jumped to 12 seats in 2022, and polls suggest it could more than double that number this time.

Ventura says he is prepared to drop some of his party’s most controversial proposals — such as chemical castration for some sex offenders and the introduction of life prison sentences — if that opens the door to his inclusion in a possible governing alliance with other right-of-centre parties.

His insistence on national sovereignty instead of closer European Union integration and his plan to grant police the right to strike are other issues that could thwart his ambitions to enter a government coalition.

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Ventura has had a colourful career. He has gone from a practicing lawyer and university professor specialising in tax law to a boisterous TV soccer pundit, an author of low-brow books and a bombastic orator on the campaign trail.

The president urges people to vote

Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, largely a figurehead but whose formal consent is needed for a party to take power, urged people to vote because uncertain times in world affairs threatened the country’s wellbeing.

In a televised address to the nation on Saturday night, Rebelo de Sousa said the unpredictable outcome of elections later this year for the European Parliament and in the United States, as well as the war in Ukraine and conflicts in the Middle East, could bring more economic difficulties.

He said that “it is at grievous times like this that voting becomes more important.”

Will the low standard of  living be the decide factor?

Meanwhile, voters have expressed alarm at Portugal’s living standards as financial pressures mount.

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An influx of foreign real estate investors and tourists seeking short-term rentals brought a spike in house prices, especially in big cities such as the capital Lisbon where many locals are being priced out of the market.

The economy feels stuck in a low gear. The Portuguese, who have long been among Western Europe’s lowest earners, received an average monthly wage before tax last year of around 1,500 euros — barely enough to rent a one-bedroom flat in Lisbon. Close to 3 million Portuguese workers earn less than 1,000 euros a month.

The number of people without an assigned family doctor, meantime, rose to 1.7 million last year, the highest number ever and up from 1.4 million in 2022.

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