Portugal holds a general election on Sunday : NPR

Socialist Party leader Pedro Nuno Santos (left) greets Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa as he arrives for an election campaign rally in Lisbon, March 5, 2024.

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Socialist Party leader Pedro Nuno Santos (left) greets Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa as he arrives for an election campaign rally in Lisbon, March 5, 2024.

Armando Franca/AP

LISBON, Portugal – Home furniture giant Ikea recently posted billboards in Portugal advertising a self-assembling bookcase, in a nod to the country’s political unrest. “A good place to store books. Or to store 75,800 euros,” it said.

That’s the amount of cash, equivalent to $82,000, that police found in envelopes on bookshelves last year when they searched the office of the prime minister’s chief of staff during a corruption investigation.

The discovery sparked a scandal that toppled the government and led to early general elections on Sunday.

Corruption is a high-profile issue in the elections after the cases “caused a lot of public consternation,” said Paula Espirito Santo, associate professor at the University of Lisbon’s Higher Institute of Social and Political Sciences.

The outrage could give further impetus to a rightward shift in European politics, as a radical right-wing populist party capitalizes on disillusionment with mainstream political parties. Similar trends gripped neighboring countries Spain and France.

Thousands of demonstrators attend a protest by police professional associations demanding better salaries and working conditions in Lisbon, January 24, 2024.

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Thousands of demonstrators attend a protest by police professional associations demanding better salaries and working conditions in Lisbon, January 24, 2024.

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The center-left Socialist Party and the center-right Social Democratic Party of Portugal have alternated in power for decades. This time they are expected to collect the bulk of the 10.8 million potential votes.

But both are tainted with accusations of bribery and cronyism.

The elections come as Socialist leader António Costa resigned after eight years as prime minister amid the corruption investigation. He has not been charged with any crime.

Also, a court in Lisbon recently decided that a former socialist prime minister should stand trial for corruption. Prosecutors accuse José Sócrates, prime minister between 2005 and 2011, of pocketing about 34 million euros in corruption, fraud and money laundering during his time in power.

The Social Democratic Party is also not flawless.

A recent corruption investigation in Portugal’s Madeira Islands led to the resignation of two prominent social democratic officials. The scandal broke on the same day the party unveiled an anti-corruption billboard in Lisbon that read: “It can’t go on like this.”

Yet Portugal’s malaise goes deeper than corruption.

Two young women carry cardboard houses above their heads during a demonstration against Portugal’s housing crisis in Lisbon, January 27, 2024.

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Two young women carry cardboard houses above their heads during a demonstration against Portugal’s housing crisis in Lisbon, January 27, 2024.

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Despite tens of billions of euros in development aid from the European Union in recent decades, it remains one of the poorest countries in Western Europe.

In 2022, the average monthly wage before taxes was around 1,400 euros ($1,500) – barely enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Lisbon as prices have risen due to a housing crisis.

Nearly 3 million Portuguese workers earn less than 1,000 euros ($1,085) per month. The average old-age pension is about 500 euros ($543) per month. Hardships have increased due to high inflation.

The frustrations have come into sharper focus because the elections roughly coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution next month. That army coup ended the right-wing dictatorship of António Salazar, which had held the country in chains for forty years, and introduced a democratic system of government.

This historic event is a powerful symbol of hope in Portugal. According to many people on the left, the lofty ideals have been replaced by dirty political interests.

“Of course I’m a bit disillusioned. I think we’re all going through a period of disillusionment… We believed in something,” says Osvaldo Sousa, an opera singer at Lisbon’s Sao Carlos Theater who, as a 20-year-old student at April 25, 1974 witnessed tanks and troops on the streets.

“Our dreams came true,” he said in his apartment on the outskirts of the capital, pointing to current problems with housing and public health care.

Even more frustrating for people like Sousa is that a radical right party could now gain access to power through the ballot box.

People walk past a billboard for Andre Ventura, leader of the populist radical right party Chega (in English, Enough) with the words: “We pay so much taxes to maintain corruption,” in Lisbon, March 4, 2024.

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People walk past a billboard for Andre Ventura, leader of the populist radical right party Chega (in English, Enough) with the words: “We pay so much taxes to maintain corruption,” in Lisbon, March 4, 2024.

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The Chega (Enough) party could find itself in the role of kingmaker if, as expected, the main parties need the support of smaller rivals to form a government.

Only five years old, Chega won its first seat in the 230-seat Portuguese parliament in 2019. That rose to 12 seats in 2022, and polls suggest it could more than double that number this time around.

Party leader André Ventura is responding to public disillusionment. “For 50 years, the Portuguese have been voting for the same parties and nothing has changed,” he said recently.

Ventura has maintained friendly relations with Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and head of the populist right-wing League party, and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Like them, he prefers the EU to be a group of sovereign states without federal obligations. He also wants stricter controls on immigration.

Ventura has indicated he is willing to drop some of Chega’s more controversial proposals, such as chemical castration for some sex offenders, if it opens the door to a governing alliance with other right-wing parties.

He has used social media to reach younger voters. One of those is 21-year-old Carolina Pereira, who said she had to drop out of college because she couldn’t afford to continue.

Now she cannot find a job because the available work pays poorly, and young people from her town of Almada near Lisbon are looking for work abroad.

“I identify (with Ventura) because I want things to change,” she said.

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