Portugal celebrates democracy anniversary amid far-right surge


  • World
  • Wednesday, 24 Apr 2024

Colonel Correia Bernardo, one of Portugal's Carnation Revolution militaries named "April Captains", gestures in front of a door of the former Practical Cavalry School in Santarem, from where militaries left towards Lisbon in April 1974 to overthrow Marcelo Caetano's dictatorship, in Portugal, April 15, 2024. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

SANTAREM, Portugal (Reuters) - Veteran military officer Captain Joaquim Correia Bernardo, 84, remembers the revolution that toppled Portugal's fascist dictatorship five decades ago as if it were yesterday.

He was in his thirties when he helped organise the April 25, 1974 military coup that returned Portugal to democracy after 48 years of authoritarian rule.

In the city of Santarem, as he stood next to the statue of Salgueiro Maia, an army captain who played a crucial role in the revolution, Correia Bernardo said its values, such as democratic participation and respect for one another, must be upheld.

"Freedom cannot be lost," he said.

His words have a particular resonance as the far-right is on the march again in Portugal.

It was from a military base in Santarem that a column of vehicles left to head to the capital Lisbon in 1974. Correia Bernardo stayed behind as it was his duty to put into action a "Plan B" in case the coup did not go as planned.

The almost bloodless coup was successful, becoming known as the "Carnation Revolution" because soldiers placed blossoms in the barrels of their guns.

It also led to the collapse of Portuguese colonial rule overseas, notably in Africa, where wars against national liberation movements had exhausted the military and drained state coffers.

But now, as the Portuguese prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the dictatorship, with thousands expected to gather in the streets, the far-right is rebounding following a general election last month.

Founded in 2019, the anti-immigration, populist Chega, led by a former sports commentator known for his derogatory remarks against ethnic minorities, is now the third-largest political party in Portugal.

Correia Bernardo and academics say Chega's growth was due to a perception that mainstream politicians have failed to meet citizens' needs. Some of the ideals of the ousted regime have persisted and Chega's leader Andre Ventura has adopted a narrative that allowed him to garner support, they say.

Chega quadrupled its parliamentary representation to 50 lawmakers out of 230 seats in last month's election. The centre-right Democratic Alliance won by a slim margin and is governing without an outright majority, with Ventura warning of instability if the government does not to negotiate policies with his party.

'CRY OF REVOLT'

Correia Bernardo said failures by consecutive governments to tackle social discontent over issues such as a housing crisis and low salaries fuelled Chega's rise. A vote for Chega was likely a "cry of revolt," he said.

A study published on Friday by Lisbon's Institute of Social Sciences ICS and research university ISCTE showed 34% of respondents believed the housing situation was worse now than before the revolution and 42% thought the job market had deteriorated.

Around 66% also said corruption was more rife now, a scourge Chega promised to stamp out.

More than half do not want another authoritarian regime but 23% said that if current political leaders followed the "ideals" of former dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who ruled for nearly 40 years, Portugal might "regain its greatness".

"A narrative that was created during the regime resisted the April 25 (revolution) and persists 50 years later," ICS' Filipa Madeira, one of the authors of the study, said.

University of Oxford political scientist Vicente Valentim, who has written a book on the far-right, said that some voted for Chega because they felt "left behind" but that many already shared the party's ideology, such as racist and xenophobic views.

For a long time, there was no politician perceived as electable to lead the far-right but Ventura changed that, Valentim said.

"Portugal was the country that seemed immune to the radical right and suddenly all of that changed," Valentim said. "It is important to understand what happened because you cannot combat a phenomenon without understanding its causes."

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Pedro Nunes; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Angus MacSwan)

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