January 31, 2022 - 10:12am

Portugal was one of the last countries in Europe without a significant Right-wing populist party. In the 2019 general election, the newly formed Chega party — whose name means “enough” — won a single seat and 1% of the vote. 

But in yesterday’s snap general election, things changed. The overall result was a convincing win for the governing Socialists. Most of the other parties, whether to the Left or the Right of the government, were punished by the voters for forcing the early election. Chega, however, was an exception. It won twelve seats and 7% of the vote to become Portugal’s third party. 

As in Spain, it had been assumed that Portugal was immune to the populist wave crashing over the rest of Europe. The memory of the Franco and Salazar dictatorships (which only ended in the 1970s) was supposedly too recent to give the radical Right any chance of success at the ballot box. But with the rise of Vox in Spain and now Chega in Portugal, that theory has been disproved. 

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, another turn up for the books. According to the results of the latest Peil opinion poll (charted here by Europe Elects) — two parties of the populist Right are now in third and fourth place. 

Credit: Europe Elects

In a fractured political landscape, the rise of the JA21 (“Right Answer”) party stands out. It was only formed in 2020 as a split from Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy. It won three seats in last year’s general election, but its current support would give it 13 seats.

Presenting a more acceptable face to the electorate than either the Forum for Democracy or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, JA21 is siphoning votes from the centrist and centre-Right parties in the governing coalition. The once mighty Christian Democrats are falling to pieces and the People’s Party of Mark Rutte, the long-serving Prime Minister, has also seen its support slump. If this pattern continues it will be increasingly difficult to keep the populists out of government. 

In their different ways both Portugal and the Netherlands serve as a warning against complacency. It’s true that the populist Right is a chaotic mess: populist leaders come and go; populist parties rise and fall. However, in one form or the other, the populist challenge to the establishment persists.

In France, a figure like Éric Zemmour can emerge from nowhere to mount a serious challenge for the Presidency. In America, Donald Trump is currently on course to win a bigger victory in 2024 than he won in 2016. 

The political alienation that caused populism to surge in the first place still exists — and populist politicians are still around to exploit it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.