Populism and the case of Chega

The Chega party gained significant success in the last years in Portugal, following the successful strategies of populist parties and movements in Europe, such as Vox in Spain and Salvini in Italy, and in the United States, with Donald Trump. Academic literature has shown that those movements adopt a discursive strategy based on the division of the society and a claim for a European biocultural identity. According to them, the European culture is “at stake”, threatened by waves of migration, particularly relevant in Muslim cases (the outsiders).Neo-far-right/alt-right movements approach this “emergency” by focusing: (a) the biological aspects, revelling a renewal of the classical racist attitudes or (b) emphasising the cultural and economic aspects of globalisation. However, this distinction presents a fallacy since the late narrative contains traces of racial elements.

For my argument, I am following Mondon & Winter’s 2018 article, “Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States”. According to them, the success of the Brexit campaign and Trump’s election lies in the racialisation of the working class, constructed as “white”. By this, a crucial narrative was fashioned, much in line with populist strategies: giving voice to the left-behind working class. These left-behind are the genuine people of the country, the “us” victims of the elites who are gaining with the globalisation and then accepting the change of the DNA of the country. The immigrants are the “others” who are taking the wives, the jobs, and the culture. “Taking the country back” became a powerful narrative, even though migrants are those who suffer more from the economic crisis, with no social security protection and are unveiled from wages fluctuation. Since the “working-class” is racialised, the immigrants from the real working-class remained outside of the unions, doubly vulnerable. Nevertheless, this racial factor is unconscious and quickly rejected by those who operate it – we are not racists; we are defending ours first. This paradox is highly evident via slogans such as “America comes first”, “taking care of our own”, etc.

The Chega (enough) party assumes the position of an anti-systemic and anti-corruption party, defending a new Constitution and a new type of regime. They are not self-recognised Fascists, despite those public acts being in line with Jason Stanley’s perspective in his book: How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them; and the presence of many relevant figures with an authoritarian profile and claims.

With the emergence of Chega, the Portuguese political scenario became polarised, presenting a new struggle between a sacralised memory of the Portuguese historical events that produced self-esteem and what the Portuguese philosopher Eduardo Lourenço called “hyper-identity”; and a claim for a decolonisation of the collective memory with a need to debate structural racism.

Left-wing parties, movements, and activisms present Chega as a racist party. Not disregarding racist attitudes and speeches from Chega members and its leader, André Ventura, the classification of Chega as a racist party sounds unfruitful. It seems to be an evident illusion from urban leftists. We may not disregard the “gipsy issue”, i.e., a long-term circumstance of stigma from the ingroup and a combative-contrasting identity from the “rom” community, with evident effect on political choices. Yes, the “rom” (gipsy) community and the crime associated with them are the top reasons for Chega’s success. But we may not isolate it and present it as the only explanation. In the countryside, in the Portuguese hinterlands, Chega’s success in electoral implantation is due to a joint of reasons:

(1) left-behind communal feeling – in some undeveloped areas, with few job opportunities and a high rank of low schooling, presenting a long distance from the centre of decision, the Parliament;

(2) defence of local traditions and the rural world – cultural practices such as bullfights in the hinterlands are critical for local identity. While left urban parties defend eradicating those practices, Chega is assuming its agenda.

(3) defence of religious-conservative agenda – a critical issue for many rural communities.

(4) defence of concrete laws for the “gipsies” – a critical topic considering the need for abstract laws in a rule of law country.

(5) defence of a more punitive penal system – another critical issue in a country that adopted a humanitarian judicial doctrine in line with the value of human dignity.

 Thus, despite the importance of racial speeches and proposals in Chega’s public making, we may not disregard the other vectors of their success. As we know, Chega is gaining supporters from different ideological fields as a “protest party”, but also a hinterland party, which has conquered voters from CDS-PP, the traditional conservative-Christian-democratic party, now associated no longer with the rural world and its people, but with urban and rural historical elites. Thereby, CDS is the party of the landowners, and Chega is the party of the land workers in some districts. A problematic situation for the Portuguese Communist Party.

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