Young voters are driving far-right surge ahead of key Europe elections

SETUBAL, Portugal — The surprise voters driving the rise of Europe’s far right rushed for selfies in a suburban auditorium. Rita Matias, a 25-year-old ultra-conservative social media influencer, had just called for migrant quotas and curbs on abortion in a political debate. Now her more progressive opponents in sedate blazers and sweaters looked on like wallflowers as star-struck 18-year-olds jostled for photos with the young woman in a photogenic taupe cardigan.

“Are you a party member?” she asked one fan, who shook his head shyly. “No? Don’t worry. We’ll get you registered.”

On a continent better known for left-wing youth activism à la Greta Thunberg, polls show that young Europeans are fueling the growth of the far right, from France to Sweden and the Netherlands. And in a year when former President Donald Trump is attempting to take back the White House, several European governments may be headed for a rightward shift, driven by voters in their late teens, 20s and early 30s.

The first big test will be in Portugal on Sunday, during the elections.

Portugal’s populist Chega party is using social media to make gains among young voters who have no living memory of the right-wing dictatorship that fell in 1974 (Video: Anthony Faiola, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

The centre-left Socialists have been in power in Portugal since 2015. Left-wing politicians across Europe have seen the country as a model of success over the years. Part of the explanation, analysts said, was that dark memories of a right-wing dictatorship that fell in 1974 kept populists at bay.

Yet studies suggest that younger Portuguese citizens with no living memory of that era could help populists make big gains. The far-right Chega party is on track to become the top party for voters aged 18 to 34, potentially tripling its share of younger voters to 22.5 percent in just two years. Although Chega is in third place, he could serve as a kingmaker for a conservative coalition — or frustrate efforts to form a government from parties that refuse to work with her.

Some aspects of this changing landscape are specific to Portugal. Prime Minister António Costa resigned and his Socialist party lost support due to an ongoing influence peddling investigation.

But the rise of Chega – ‘Enough’ in English – is seen as a signal that the far right can rise across Europe, and that disenchanted young people can be convinced that ultra-conservatism is cool.

Younger voters in Portugal and across Europe are responding like never before to the siren song of the far right, with their imaginations captured by a new crop of youthful leaders, clever social media campaigns and promises of no more politics as usual.

Once praised for decriminalizing drugs, Portugal is now having second thoughts

Matias, an MP from Chega in Portugal, is among the most popular of a growing group of ultra-conservative influencers who mix identity politics and antics-filled infotainment, leaving mainstream parties struggling to respond. One of her Instagram videos – in which she wears aviator glasses with her 41-year-old party leader – was viewed more than 3.6 million times in a country of 10 million people.

“The [mainstream] parties do not speak the language of the young people, but these more radical parties do,” says Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest think tank. “They channel young voters’ disillusionment with politics.”

A youth quake throughout Europe

In the Netherlands, anti-migrant stalwart Geert Wilders took a shocking first place in November in an election in which his party claimed the largest share of voters aged 18 to 34.

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is banking on young voters winning in this year’s national elections, after winning the bulk of the youth vote in last year’s regional elections in Salzburg.

The Dutch elections show that the extreme right is rising and reforming Europe

In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party finished third in Bavaria’s state elections last year, but made the biggest gains among voters under 25. This fall, the party hopes for a major boost from younger voters in the elections in the state of Bavaria. the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia – three strongholds of the AfD.

In France, centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s appointment of 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as prime minister could reflect a realization that the far right has been actively trying to promote the youth vote. Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old chairman of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, is rallying support in nightclubs and was recently included in France’s top 50 celebrities by Le Journal du Dimanche.

Cultivating youth could pay big dividends in the key European Parliament elections in June. The far right in France and across Europe is expected to show its strongest numbers since the founding of the European Union.

The messages vary from country to country – with the Austrian Freedom Party mainly trading in old Nazi symbolism and deploying propaganda claiming that migrants are ‘replacing’ white Europeans. But many other far-right parties are doubling down on the economic plight of young Europeans, who remain outraged by the relatively high youth unemployment, low wages, painful inflation and high real estate prices plaguing Europe.

“If you look at all these parties now, they have maintained their anti-immigration stance, but they have shifted much more to focus on socio-economic appeals,” said Catherine Fieschi, political analyst and fellow at the Robert Schuman Center of the European Union. University Institute in Florence. “But the other important way they reached young people is that they were very smart about social networking.”

On enemy turf in a liberal Lisbon suburb, Matias recently defeated Chicken McNuggets before rushing to meet her mentor, Chega founder André Ventura, to knock on voters’ doors.

As the pair walked around, several onlookers shouted “fascists!” from sidewalks or car windows. Still, neighborhood children gasped in surprise. “My dream has come true!” said a 12-year-old after taking a selfie with Ventura.

“We are the best party that communicates with young people,” Ventura said in an interview. ‘It’s coming through [Matias’s] work.”

She started as his social media coordinator after the party’s launch in 2019. Soon after, Ventura decided she needed to be a face of the party on social media as well. She was among Chega lawmakers elected to parliament in 2022, when the party increased its number of seats from one to 12.

Chega’s postmodern political machine – inspired by the social media campaigns of Trump and Brazil’s far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro – thrives on polarization, division and infotainment, and is built on the kind of social media disinformation and clickbait ideal for luring disenchanted youth .

Ventura, who has demonized the Roma community and said a black lawmaker should be “sent back to her own country,” is using social media platforms to interact with young people in more fun ways — and recently posted a TikTok video in which he danced to the Brazilian Lambada.

Matias helps further soften the party’s image. In one Instagram reel, she poses as a model with the São Bento Palace of Parliament as the backdrop.

When asked what it’s like to run against “an influencer,” Diogo Mira, a politician from the left who debated Matias, said: “It makes me feel terrible.” Young people prefer those who do TikToks. They prefer sound bites. Chega indoctrinates them.”

Matias has criticized Portuguese schools for allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms that correspond to how they feel about themselves, but she is in favor of creating separate transgender bathrooms so that everyone can feel “comfortable.”

One of Matias’ grandmothers was born in Mozambique, the daughter of Goans who settled in the African country during the Portuguese colonization campaigns and later emigrated to Portugal. Matias says she is “fine” with immigrants from Portugal’s former colonies in Brazil and Africa, but emphasizes that a new wave of South Asian migrants has made “women feel unsafe.”

There is no data indicating an increase in sexual violence.

“It could be about perception,” she said. “We [should be] free to speak about this without being called xenophobic or racist.”

The party has made corruption a major cause – and saw a rebound in the polls after the Socialist-led government collapsed last year. Ventura quickly rolled out billboards that read: “Portugal needs a clean-up.”

The problem, observers say, is that many of Chega’s statements are untrue.

In January, for example, in an effort to score points on migration, Ventura said that foreigners made up 30 percent of the population of Braga, a city in northern Portugal. The fact-checking body Polígrafo estimates the actual number to be no higher than 7.9 percent.

“About 80 percent of the misinformation we see comes from Chega and André Ventura,” said Fernando Esteves, director of Polígrafo. “About 60 percent of his statements are false or inaccurate. They generate their own stories, manipulate photos, create fake polls.”

Real voter intention polls show that the Socialists have hemorrhaged young voters, although many of Chega’s gains appear to have come from the centre-right, or from the mass ranks of apathetic non-voters, especially those in urban areas like Lisbon, where rising property values and low salaries fuel unrest. frustrations among young Portuguese.

The young people are notoriously unreliable on election day here. But Chega is hoping for a revolution with the help of people like Guilherme Joaquim, an 18-year-old IT student who recently attended a university debate to hear Matias speak. He switched from the center-right to Chega, calling the far-right the best force “against the wave of brutal immigration taking place in the country.”

“Chega offers young people what they need: housing and a down payment for their first home,” he said. “The Portuguese are losing jobs and moving abroad because they cannot find jobs in Portugal. [Chega] focuses on what young people are dealing with.”

Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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