• Inês Raquel Duque

The Echoes of Salazar in an Immature Democracy

Photo credit: https://www.antenalivre.pt/cultura/25-abril-a-cinemateca-portuguesa-disponibiliza-documentos-online-sobre-a-revolucao

As History keeps showing us, freedom is not given but earned, sometimes at the cost of a nation’s blood and tears. Portugal - a tiny Atlantic-facing rectangular country in the far West of Europe - is no exception. Similar to many other former right-wing dictatorships, this small Western state is again reviving a specific set of ideologies and behaviours that the post-democratic governments swore to fight against - and failed.

The Portuguese Republic became a democracy on the 25th of April of 1974, in a revolutionary act also known as the Carnation Revolution. Today, regardless of the tough sacrifices the country had to endure, it seems that its current society keeps taking for granted the rights and freedoms gained on that day.

It is not a surprise that far-right ideas and movements have been experiencing quick growth on the European continent. To a very visible extent, one could point to when this new wave of right-wing sympathizers had their start: the election of the former US President, Donald J. Trump. His vocal and “bold” position fueled these groups with enough courage to come out in public and say out loud what for the past decades has been silenced at every cost. The unspoken prejudice towards “the other”, the glorification of certain deeds of a colonialist nature, the ridiculing of left-wing causes - with a special focus on Feminism and LGBTQI+ rights - have led to the steady and (possibly) dangerous growth in the influence of groups whose values had oppressed entire societies for decades. Portugal, despite occupying several top 5 and top 10 rankings of the safest and friendliest countries in the world, also does not escape such backward tendencies.

Many inhabitants of Portugal got a true and harsh reality-check during the presidential elections on the 26th of January of 2021 when for the first time in the history of the country, the elections were carried out under a state of emergency. The campaign was marked by the rise of the new right-wing, anti-establishment party called “Chega!” (Enough!), whose leader, André Ventura, claims to be “the only right-wing candidate”[1]. On the 31st of January 2021, “Chega!” became the third most powerful parliamentary party with 12 seats in the Assembly of the Republic[2] and 7.2% of the votes. This was an extremely significant growth considering that before the new parliamentary elections[3] there was only one seat occupied by this party’s leader.

Once a political party that endorses plenty of salazarist ideals[4] gained such political and social visibility, political scientists started evaluating the possible impacts of this entity on the Portuguese society. For instance, Vicente Valentim, a researcher at Oxford University, pointed out that citizens “who were perhaps more likely to be in favor of the ‘Estado Novo’, or were racist or xenophobic, but had been ashamed of behaving in that manner due to a taboo [in the Portuguese society], from the moment these [far-right] parties have succeeded, [they] feel much more legitimate [in voicing their opinions] and are more likely to do so in public”[5].

In short, when political parties like “Chega!” reach a higher level of power and, therefore, legitimacy, people that support questionable values and, most of the time, defend the return to a more conservative regime feel represented and somehow protected within the society. This is quite problematic, as the rise of far-right parties further complicates several of Portugal’s unresolved issues in the social and economic fields and contradicts the quest to find and promote ways to heal the scars left by the Portuguese colonial and authoritarian past.

On the one hand, although there are several agreements (mainly in the educational sector) between Portugal and its former colonies, there are still a handful of problems to tackle properly when it comes to discrimination and prejudice, especially towards the Brazilian and African communities that have immigrated to Portugal. The hurt egos of the defenders of the senseless perception of Portugal as a “good colonizer” insist on prevailing such false rhetoric, labeling most non-European/non-white newcomers as ungrateful every time the members of these communities complain about discriminatory behaviour towards them.

On the other hand, as if legitimizing and promoting xenophobia was not enough, this neo-salazarist actor also wishes to bring the “good old ways” back to society. Not surprisingly, in its electoral program, “Chega!” explicitly promotes the “conservative ideal of the Portuguese [people], and its actions focus on the defense of the natural family, the one ‘based on the intimate relationship between a woman and a man”. [6] For Mr. Ventura’s party, all socialist/left-wing (or even centrist) governments that ruled the country after the Carnation Revolution are to blame for the failure of the country’s “social-moral orientation”. In extension of this ideology, the “failed ‘multiculturalism’ and the fanatical ‘gender ideology’” are also targets in its proposed educational reforms. For example, parents are free to educate their children the way they please on certain (sensitive) topics, namely sexual education, but schools shall not have any say in how the national youth should perceive and behave towards these same matters. Following this party’s logic, one could guess its stance on the issue of abortion, a women’s right that only became recognized in Portugal more than three decades after the revolution.

“Chega!” also keeps insisting that Portugal should honour its fallen heroes, whose lives were shattered or erased during the colonial war “in defense of [our] homeland”. Whilst it is fair that families that sacrificed their sons should be compensated, it is imperative that we reflect on the nature of the war itself. There are two very important aspects we should consider.

Soldiers were obliged to fight in the Ultramar. Refusal was not an option as military service was mandatory for every male Portuguese citizen, as well as for every male foreigner living in the country for five or more years[7] - it was never about selfless acts of patriotism, but an imposed duty. Evocation of the sacrifice of our loved ones should not ex-post be used to assume a public support for the war then under an autocratic regime. In addition, from whom were the Portuguese forces defending their “homeland”? Which homeland if they were fighting in Africa? The answers are quite simple: the salazarist regime considered the occupied African territories part of Portugal, therefore also “homeland”, and the Portuguese soldiers had to defend these territories from the local resistance and independence forces. Knowing this, the current society must understand and, most importantly, accept that back then Portugal sacrificed its citizens to maintain its occupied territories, not to defend the country or the nation per se. However, after almost fifty years since the revolution of the 25th of April of 1974, too little is talked - even less taught - about the immense challenges endured by the peoples of the former Portuguese African colonies in the following decades until today.

On a final note, the Carnation Revolution is also proof that when the common folk and the military have the same goal - even if guided by different interests - change is possible. For that reason, it is essential that the Portuguese people understand the true value and importance of the country’s Armed Forces and their role in defending our democracy.

Indeed, there is no doubt that the Portuguese democratic regime has committed its fair share of mistakes, that not always the national interests were respected, and that there are too many changes and reforms that need to be done as soon as possible. Notwithstanding, in order to turn these needs into reality the people of this country must take full responsibility of their acquired duties as citizens, starting by exercising their right to vote, a right that has not been truly valued since the fall of the old regime[8]. The discontentment with the last governments is no reason to refrain from voting, as new parties with new and (more) practical policies and promises keep raising their voices in the Parliament and in the public sphere.[9]

Portugal’s new generations demand change and justice, but the generalized political apathy of its society combined with the dangerous dictatorial and colonialist nostalgia - with a generous sprinkle of ignorance - threatens the healthy growth and maturing of this young European democracy. The revolutionary chants and mottos claimed and hoped that this small Atlantic country would never go back on its path to freedom and democracy. It is, in the end, up to its people to decide if they will either honour the citizens who risked their lives so they could have a better life or if they will allow the echoes of Salazar to triumph.


1] Is the far-right gaining popularity in Portugal? https://www.euronews.com/2021/01/21/is-the-far-right-gaining-popularity-in-portugal

[2] Also simply known as the Parliament.

[3] That were provoked by the rejection of the State Budget by the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP), the Left Block (BE), and the Green Party (PEV), on the 27th of October last year. BE, PCP e PEV juntam-se à direita e chumbam Orçamento para 2022, in Jornal de Negócios. Available at https://www.jornaldenegocios.pt/economia/financas-publicas/orcamento-do-estado/detalhe/arranca-o-segundo-dia-de-debate-no-parlamento-sobre-o-orcamento-do-estado

[4] Referring to the ideals of António de Oliveira Salazar, former Prime-Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968 who installed the right-wing dictatorial and Catholic conservative regime in the country, known as Estado Novo (New State); and under which the colonial war - also called Ultramar - and its inevitable blood spilling in the former Portuguese colonies in Africa started.

[5] Agência Lusa in Observador, Politólogos alertam que ascensão do Chega irá extremar comportamentos e retórica na sociedade https://observador.pt/2022/02/01/politologos-alertam-que-ascensao-do-chega-ira-extremar-comportamentos-e-retorica-na-sociedade/

[6] PROGRAMA ELEITORAL LEGISLATIVAS 2022. Available at https://partidochega.pt/programa-eleitoral-legislativas-2022/

[7] Lei n.º 2135, de 11 de julho, in Diário do Governo n.º 163/1968, Série I de 1968-07-11, páginas 987 - 998. Available at https://dre.pt/dre/detalhe/lei/2135-1968-272665

[8] Abstention rate in the elections for the Presidency of the Republic: total, residents in Portugal and residents abroad. Available at https://www.pordata.pt/en/Portugal/Abstention+rate+in+the+elections+for+the+Presidency+of+the+Republic+total++residents+in+Portugal+and+residents+abroad-2207-178384

[9] Although overshadowed by the main giant parties such as the Socialist Party (PS) and the Social Democrat Party (PSD). On that note, despite its name, the Portuguese Social Democrat Party is a center-right political party, and the main opposition actor in most Socialist governments, except when rulling in coalition.

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