September 30, 2019 / 7:22 AM / 14 days ago

Europe's loneliest far-right party losing election battle in Portugal

LISBON (Reuters) - Waving Portuguese flags, leaders of the far-right National Renovation Party (PNR) waited for more people to turn up at a mid-September rally in Lisbon, but their patriotic chants fell on deaf ears.

Jose Pinto Coelho, president of far-right National Renovator Party (PNR) speaks during a rally at Camoes square in Lisbon Portugal, September 14, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante/File Photo

No one joined the 50 or so party faithful gathered on this quaint square to campaign for the Oct. 6 parliamentary election. A few passerby did stop, but only to yell: “Fascists!”

At a time when far-right populist movements are on the rise in most of Europe, such poor turnouts are the norm for their peers in Portugal, where the centre-left Socialists are expected to stay in power.

Portugal is one of only five EU countries without an elected far right party in parliament - alongside Britain, Ireland and tiny Malta and Luxembourg - and the election is unlikely to change that. PNR and Chega, a second far-right party which emerged last year, are polling below 1% each.

Far right groups may have had more difficulty establishing themselves in Portugal than elsewhere because of its attachment to a young democracy that arrived only in 1974 after four decades of fascist dictatorship.

“People in Portugal have been socialised to a very multiethnic society, even compared to Spain,” said political scientist James Dennison, who researched far-right movements in Iberia.

He says the far right in Europe often gains a foothold by latching onto an issue seen as less polarising than immigration, such as euroscepticism in Britain, regional identity in Italy or high taxes in the Nordics, which has not happened in Portugal.

With migrants long coming from its former colonies, including Brazil and Angola, Portugal has become accustomed to a flow of newcomers from far and wide. Unlike most European nations trying to curb migration, Portugal wants more, seeing it as a way to tackle the problem of an ageing population problem.

“We need more immigration and we won’t tolerate any xenophobic rhetoric,” Prime Minister Antonio Costa told a conference last year.

“MAKE PORTUGAL BIG AGAIN”

Portugal did not receive a sudden wave of migrants in recent years, such as the mass arrivals by sea in the Mediterranean coastal countries and by land in northern European countries such as Germany in 2016.

“People are still concerned with day to day issues, such as the economy and unemployment, issues that overshadow migration,” said Dennison, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence.

Some researchers have also said that the absence of attacks by Islamist militants in Portugal, which was ranked the third most peaceful country in the world by the Global Peace Index, has helped to keep anti-foreigner sentiment at bay.

But Portuguese society is not devoid of racism, xenophobia or homophobia despite having gone through many liberal changes since the end of Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship.

“A lot of people (in Portugal) think like us but they would rather go to the beach, stay at home or rest,” PNR’s leader Jose Pinto Coelho told Reuters.

Supporters of far-right National Renovator Party (PNR) attend a rally at Camoes square in Lisbon Portugal, September 14, 2019. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante/File Photo

A nostalgia for Salazar, a harsh line towards migrants, the ethnic Roma and the LGBT community are common traits for PNR and Chega. In its election manifesto, with the Trumpian slogan “make Portugal great again”, PNR promised to halt the construction of mosques and repeal the same-sex marriage law.

Activists who oppose the far right say Portugal could still be vulnerable to extremism, even if far right parties have not yet found a way to translate it into votes.

“Portugal is not immune. It will only take longer to manifest itself,” said Jonathan Ferreira da Costa, from the Antifascist Unitary Front, which organises protests against far right events.

Reporting by Catarina Demony; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Ingrid Melander

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