© 2024 Innovation Trail

Anger over corruption and Portugal's economy dominate Sunday's general election

Socialist Party leader Pedro Nuno Santos, left, greets Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa as he arrives for an election campaign rally in Lisbon, March 5, 2024.
Armando Franca
/
AP
Socialist Party leader Pedro Nuno Santos, left, greets Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa as he arrives for an election campaign rally in Lisbon, March 5, 2024.

LISBON, Portugal — Home furnishings giant Ikea recently placed billboards in Portugal advertising a self-assembly bookcase, with a wink at the country's political upheaval. "A good place to stash books. Or to stash 75,800 euros," it said.

That's the amount of cash, equivalent to $82,000, police found stuffed in envelopes on bookshelves when they searched the office of the prime minister's chief of staff last year during a corruption investigation.

The discovery triggered a scandal that brought down the government and led to an early general election on Sunday.

Corruption is a high-profile issue in the election after the cases "caused a lot of public dismay," said Paula Espirito Santo, an associate professor at the University of Lisbon's Superior Institute for Social and Political Sciences.

The outrage could give further momentum to a rightward drift in European politics as a radical right populist party benefits from disenchantment with mainstream political parties. Similar trends gripped neighboring Spain and France.

Thousands of demonstrators attend a protest by police professional associations demanding better salaries and work conditions in Lisbon, Jan. 24, 2024.
Armando Franca / AP
/
AP
Thousands of demonstrators attend a protest by police professional associations demanding better salaries and work conditions in Lisbon, Jan. 24, 2024.

Portugal's center-left Socialist Party and center-right Social Democratic Party have alternated in power for decades. They are expected to collect most of the 10.8 million potential votes this time.

But both are tainted by charges of graft and cronyism.

The election is taking place because Socialist leader António Costa resigned after eight years as prime minister amid the corruption investigation. He hasn't been accused of any crime.

Also, a Lisbon court recently decided that a former Socialist prime minister should stand trial for corruption. Prosecutors accuse José Sócrates, prime minister between 2005-2011, of pocketing around 34 million euros ($37 million) from graft, fraud and money laundering during his time in power.

The Social Democratic Party is not unblemished, either.

A recent graft investigation in Portugal's Madeira Islands triggered the resignation of two prominent Social Democrat officials. The scandal erupted on the same day the party unveiled an anti-corruption billboard in Lisbon that said, "It can't go on like this."

Yet Portugal's malaise runs deeper than corruption.

Two young women wear cardboard houses over their heads during a demonstration protesting Portugal's housing crisis, in Lisbon, Jan. 27, 2024.
Armando Franca / AP
/
AP
Two young women wear cardboard houses over their heads during a demonstration protesting Portugal's housing crisis, in Lisbon, Jan. 27, 2024.

Despite tens of billions of euros in European Union development aid in recent decades, it remains one of Western Europe's poorest countries.

In 2022, the average monthly wage before tax was around 1,400 euros ($1,500) — barely enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon as prices have shot up amid a housing crisis.

Close to 3 million Portuguese workers earn less than 1,000 euros ($1,085) a month. The average old-age pension is around 500 euros ($543) a month. Hardship has grown due to a surge in inflation.

The frustrations have come into sharper focus because the election roughly coincides with the 50th anniversary next month of the Carnation Revolution. That army coup swept away António Salazar's right-wing dictatorship, which had kept the country in shackles for four decades, and introduced a democratic system of government.

The landmark event is a powerful symbol of hope in Portugal. In the opinion of many left-leaning people, its lofty ideals have been replaced by grubby political interests.

"I'm a bit disillusioned, of course. I think we're all going through a period of disillusionment ... We believed in something," said Osvaldo Sousa, an opera singer at Lisbon's Sao Carlos theater who as a 20-year-old student witnessed tanks and troops in the streets on April 25, 1974.

"Our dreams came up short," he said at his apartment in the capital's suburbs, pointing to current difficulties with housing and public health care.

Even more frustrating for people like Sousa is that a radical right party could now have access to power through the ballot box.

People walk by a billboard for Andre Ventura, leader of populist radical right party Chega (in English, Enough) with the words, "We pay so many taxes to sustain corruption", in Lisbon, March 4, 2024.
Armando Franca / AP
/
AP
People walk by a billboard for Andre Ventura, leader of populist radical right party Chega (in English, Enough) with the words, "We pay so many taxes to sustain corruption", in Lisbon, March 4, 2024.

The Chega (Enough) party may end up in the role of kingmaker if, as expected, the main parties need the support of smaller rivals to form a government.

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.

Party leader André Ventura is tapping the public disenchantment. "For 50 years the Portuguese have voted for the same parties and nothing's changed," he said recently.

Ventura has forged friendly relations with Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister and head of the populist, right-wing League party, and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Like them, he prefers the EU to be a grouping of sovereign states with no federal obligations. He also wants tighter controls on immigration.

Ventura has indicated he is prepared to drop some of Chega's more controversial proposals, such as chemical castration for some sex offenders, if that opens the door to a governing alliance with other right-of-center parties.

He has made use of social media to reach younger voters. One is 21-year-old Carolina Pereira, who said she had to drop out of university because she couldn't afford to continue.

Now she can't find a job as the work available pays badly, and young people from her city of Almada near Lisbon are seeking work abroad.

"I identify (with Ventura) because I want things to change," she said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
The Associated Press