Portugal: Is Europe’s Vaccine Hero Losing Its “Special Balance”, Allowing Right-Wing Parties to Flourish?

Eva & Daiva @ The Inoculation

After elections in January, Portuguese Socialists have secured an absolute majority, promising political continuity in the country that enjoys Europe's highest rate of vaccination against COVID-19. But the side story of the election was that Portugal's previous immunity to far-right representation in parliament has waned: the Chega party increased its presence from just one to 12 seats.

Chega's main pitch was opposition to the so-called elite, known as "the big center" in Portugal. And, as our analysis shows, this extends to opposing vaccine mandates and restrictions. To find out more, Daiva talked to Portuguese researchers Silvia Roque and Daniel Garcia.

You can find a Nature article about Portugal’s “special balance” here. Daniel Garcia’s thesis (in English) is available here. And this is a video of the prime minister being confronted by anti-vaccination protesters. And this is the link to the State of Hate 2021 report. Transcripts are at www.theinoculation.com

​After the investigation is complete, you will be able to find the code we used for the analysis of the Portuguese data on our GitHub repository. The production of this investigation is supported by a grant from the IJ4EU fund. The International Press Institute (IPI), the European Journalism Centre (EJC) and any other partners in the IJ4EU fund are not responsible for the content published and any use made out of it.


Eva Schaper  0:05
Hi, listeners. Welcome to the inoculation. My name is Eva Von Schaper.

Daiva Repeckaite  0:10
My name is Daiva Repeckaite.

Eva Schaper  0:11
Daiva, what did we just listened to?

Daiva Repeckaite  0:14
Well, this was a news clip of Portuguese Prime Minister being confronted by anti vaccination protesters. And some of them are carrying posters read something like transhumanism, and there is something about 5g on them.

Eva Schaper  0:32
This is happening in Portugal, isn't it the most vaccinated European country?

Daiva Repeckaite  0:37
Yes. And that is what today's episode is about.

Eva Schaper  0:49
Okay, excellent. So let's start.

Daiva Repeckaite  0:52
Over the past months, we've been working on our analysis of elected politicians' tweets about vaccination in different European countries. And we picked Portugal as a case for comparison without such a highly vaccinated country will have a different political dynamic. So we also included it because it's had elections in January this year.

Eva Schaper  1:14
And so to be honest, what we expected to find was that we would see a smaller number of politicians tweeting negatively about vaccines. And to some extent, that was true. But when we took a closer look, we were also really surprised about what we found.

Daiva Repeckaite  1:35
Let's look at our analysis to explain what we did.

Eva Schaper  1:37
Okay. First, what we did we collected tweets from all of Portugal's sitting MPs,

Daiva Repeckaite  1:44
those that had Twitter accounts. And, you know, on this, we have to say that some of them didn't have Twitter accounts, or some of them had accounts, but didn't tweet.

Eva Schaper  1:54
Yeah. And that's fair enough. And it's fair to say that that probably does influence the results of our analysis. But we took Twitter and that's what we did in all European countries. So to have that consistency, we accepted that we might be missing out on some MPs who don't tweet. So what we did we analyze the tweets three months before the election, and we only found 83 tweets mentioning vaccines. So to give you an idea of how much the politicians tweeted, we turn the amount of their tweets into a sound signature. So if I was following the Portuguese political conversation about vaccines, this is how the different parties tweeting about vaccines would sound the Socialist Party

the Social Democratic Party?


the left block

Chega, the far right party, People animals nature party, the conservative People's Party, the Communist Party, liberal Initiative and the free party.

Daiva Repeckaite  4:01
Yes, there would be silence from some parties, which means that they didn't tweet about vaccination at all. But when we filtered out the tweets that got the most engagement, retweets and favorites, we could hardly believe what we saw, especially since Portugal is one of Europe's most vaccinated countries. Can you give me an example. So this is the most retweeted tweet and also one of the top most favorited: "Chega vehemently rejects any mandatory imposition of the vaccine against COVID-19. We are regressing eight years in Europe, rights and freedoms are under serious threat", exclamation mark, end of quote.

Eva Schaper  4:39
That's just one tweet. And also, we just heard that Chega Only tweeted three times about vaccines. So how does that fit together?

Daiva Repeckaite  4:48
Only three times but all of their tweets were quite popular. So here's another one. "One day we have to walk with a star on the street saying vaccinated or unvaccinated. Respect people and their freedom of decision" exclamation mark end of quote.

Eva Schaper  5:03
So then we also looked at tweets that mentioned the Coronavirus, which tweet was the most popular it read

Daiva Repeckaite  5:11
something like, "have you seen that the number of new infections by COVID-19 always breaks records and exceeds red lines on the eve of the announcement of restrictive measures by the government. Isn't that a hell of a coincidence?"

Eva Schaper  5:23
Well, to me that sounds a lot like a bit of a conspiracy theory. And can you do we know how many people were tweeting about this

Daiva Repeckaite  5:31
all these tweets that I've just translated whereby the same person, Andre Ventura, a former sports pundit who founded the Chega party, and ran for presidential election last year. until recently, he was the only representative of Chega in the Portuguese parliament, right.

Eva Schaper  5:48
But that's changed this year after the recent election. There were 12 Chega MPs in Parliament.

Daiva Repeckaite  5:55
Yeah, so we thought we will unpack the result a bit. experts consider Chega a far right Populist Party, and it's really new, established only in 2019. When I was reading up on this, I found an article in Nature from the year before. It stated that the author saw four explanations for the lack of right wing populism in Portugal. One is the low levels of Euro skepticism, two, low immigration rates, three, lack of political space to develop, and four, lower engagement in communicating that same populism, the author said that these dynamics create a special balance and a rather specific political situation in Portugal. But they also said that this balance may be compromised, if any of these dynamics so these four reasons suddenly change, and they could potentially paving the way for right wing populists in Portugal to achieve more political prominence. And of course, the author has predicted that a more robust and effective communication strategy, well could also bring more visibility to the far right, or if the political establishment was seen to be failing to represent the will of the people.

Eva Schaper  7:09
That's really interesting. So do you think it's fair to say that what the author's called Portugal's special balance is no longer holding up?

Daiva Repeckaite  7:21
Well, there are 12 far-right MPs. Now, out of the 230 seats in the Portuguese parliament. The article is from 2018 when there was no Far-right representation in Portugal's parliament.

Eva Schaper  7:36
I think you're right. But so what actually did happen? So euroskepticism didn't change? We didn't see a greatly changed levels of immigration space to develop didn't change dramatically, either in Portugal. So did the far-right become so much better at communicating on social media? Maybe,

Daiva Repeckaite  7:57
but also, it seems that the pandemic has helped them.

Eva Schaper  8:02
Yeah. So to find out more, I took a look at a report called the state of hate know by the London hope not hate foundation. It was published in January of 2021. And they basically say that the Portuguese for right has been trying to take advantage of and this is according this discontent, resentment and frustration caused by the lockdown measures. So during last summer, the the far right party organized two demonstrations according to the report, that were not overtly about COVID vaccination. And this then further open the door to more far right mobilizations organized by a pandemic negation is movements that started being relatively frequent. They had connections to Chega's officials and had links to similar movements in Spain. And what I really think is interesting, they started with a couple of a few dozen participants, and and today, which means January 2021, there are hundreds of people. And you know, as the lockdown and restrictions had more impact on small business owners, restaurant owners, the far right has been trying to link itself to, to protests against these measures. And Andre Ventura, Chega's leader, he was also present in one of in a restaurant sector protest. And what I also think is really interesting and seems to play into what we found that there's been significant far right mobilization on social media, propagating conspiracy theories, propaganda and fake news about the COVID 19 pandemic crisis, according to the report,

Daiva Repeckaite  9:55
and we find all the familiar keywords, you know, 5g, globalist conspiracy, and all the things that we know from other countries. So to figure it out, I called Portuguese researcher Silvia Roque.

Eva Schaper  10:10
Okay, so what what did she tell you?

Daiva Repeckaite  10:13
I asked Silvia to define the far right in the Portuguese context.

Silvia Roque  10:18
So I'm Silvia Roque. I'm a researcher at the Center for Social Studies in the University of Coimbra, Portugal. And I've been studying, among other things with a friend, a colleague of mine Rita Santos, we recently wrote a paper on the anti gender and feminist and anti my immigration positions from the far right political parties in Portugal. So in Portugal, we have to consider that we have too far right parties, one of them doesn't have many votes and has never achieved a seat in the parliament. And we never saw it as real. The problem is that in the last few years, this party Chega was created and some people try to classify just as popular right wing populist party or now a radical right party, because of course, they do not wrote in their principles. They are racist that they are xenophobic and extremely anti feminist also, so they don't do do it as an openly conversation naturally, but sometimes they bring this issue so they keep keep coming with these issues to the media. And actually perpetrating acts of racism, xenophobia, etc.

Eva Schaper  12:11
Okay, something that's really important to note is that the Portuguese for right often copies ideas from other similar parties in Europe, even if the situation on the ground is very, very different

Silvia Roque  12:23
Portugal has no big community of refugees. So they usually prefer to go to other countries like Germany and England, France. Still, they repeat this Europeans slogans, as if we live in the same situation, you know, plenty of refugees coming to Portugal, as the so they assume that they are also protecting this set European way of living, European civilization, against Islam, we don't have a big Muslim communities in Portugal. So they are very good strategically at pointing out some local issues, national issues, because they know they can use and have votes on that. And on the other hand, they also are very smart at joining other European forces to slogans and messages. So you can find that same messages in Vox in Spain, for instance.

Daiva Repeckaite  13:38
I asked Silvia, what kind of people vote for the far right,

Silvia Roque  13:42
from what I've read, they are mostly men young with low education, but not necessarily poor. So are they called the disappointed with the globalization they're disappointed with the economy that is according with government. So, what they do is to recollect on this disappointments and grievances are to, to present themselves as the anti systemic part, when in reality, they are really part of the system, because all those directors and those politicians in charge of the party come either from center right wing, they as the the, the Christian Democrats today as they were previously in other right wing, but democratic parties. They always come from the very the orthodoxy of this church or this from evangelicals. So that's a great mix there. And they have a lot of that's like we know.

Eva Schaper  15:08
So going back to the Nature article that talked about the special Portuguese balance, is Chega so much better at social media than other parties?

Silvia Roque  15:18
I think that they succeeded in presenting them as the victims of the system. So that's that is attracting a lot of people. And they really use social networks to create this image of the leader, as sent by God, it thinks he was sent by God to save Portugal, you know. So they create this around the charismatic leader. They have a charismatic leader, and then they circulate. Everything circulates around him.

Daiva Repeckaite  15:53
I asked her about Chega's attitudes towards vaccination.

Silvia Roque  15:57
The thing is that the party is the members of the party, are not in agreement. Some of them are pro vaccine, and some of them are not the leader as a very difficult test to present this publicly. So that's why he's many times erratic and not very clear on what he's defending so he was not vaccinated. And he got got covid 19, then and then on a debate with the ex Prime Minister, it told him that "Okay, so maybe I'm going to be vaccinated", but they don't have a strict messages to send but they are some small messages that I mean, sent by not vaccinating itself, or presenting very many precautions, advising people to think a little bit more about vaccinating the children.

Daiva Repeckaite  17:07
We tried to contact Andre Ventura and the Chega spokesperson for an interview, but our messages went unanswered.

Eva Schaper  17:13
Okay, so from what we know, they are not clearly anti vaccine, but against vaccine documentation. They're basically typically "I'm not an anti Vaxxer, But..." people

Daiva Repeckaite  17:26
and parties like this coordinate their messages.

Silvia Roque  17:29
They copied it from Bolsonaro in Brazil, they copied it from Trump. So this is a whole thing, not a whole network of this kind of far right parties, in many places, and also in Europe. And yeah, he has invited Matteo Salvini for the Congress of the party, the party has invited Marine Le Pen also. He was travelling here with with her and presenting there. So yeah, of course, he wants to be popular with these leaders and to receive some support from them.

Eva Schaper  18:13
And so this is what we know. The far right is known for hostility towards minorities and migrants, and also for presenting itself both as a victim and as a defender of the common people. It doesn't have a clear stance on vaccination, but it likes to pose as a protector of the people from restrictions related to vaccination. Would you say that that's a fair assessment?

Daiva Repeckaite  18:40
Exactly. I think we need to point out one important distinction here, when we started researching anti vaccination movements, experts were telling us that we must distinguish between anti vaxxers and vaccine hesitant individuals, vaccine hesitant people might not be hostile to vaccines, but they may have some worries or doubts, or maybe they think that certain vaccines may be good for others, but not for them specifically, or their children. And I would now add that there's a third category of vaccine conspiracists, they may not communicate against vaccines as a medical product. But they base their strategy on claiming that governments businesses and doctors are somehow conspiring against individual choice. I think this is at the heart of Ventura's top performing tweets.

Eva Schaper  19:30
So So do you think that this is more palatable to a highly vaccinated population like Portugal is rather than an outright anti vaccination stance?

Daiva Repeckaite  19:43
To understand this better, I call the man who has read a lot of Andre Ventura for his master's thesis.

Daniel Garcia  19:49
My name is Daniel Garcia. I am a social psychologist and I'm currently doing a PhD in Psychology researching political and media discourse and studying in Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

Daiva Repeckaite  20:03
Daniel read over 250 posts by the tour on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram during the last month of the 2021. Presidential campaign.

Eva Schaper  20:11
Wow, that seems like a lot did he tell you how he decided to focus on Chega and Ventura?

Daiva Repeckaite  20:19
Let's hear from him.

Daniel Garcia  20:20
Portugal was known for being a country in which far right political parties never succeeded since democracy was installed again, in 1974. Chega was the first far right political party to enter in the parliament.

Daiva Repeckaite  20:37
Daniel agrees that Chega has mastered social media communication that is both passionate and reassuring.

Daniel Garcia  20:43
I think that one of the main issues was that the Chega party, the complete use of social media, and the kind of discourses that use it is a direct message is no respectful about other people. It just says, "These are the enemies we are under attack." And another strategy that they are using and probably help them to gain support is the doing during the economic crisis in Portugal, since 2010, they the country were recovering, but there were some in some economical problems, their party take advantage of the situation. So they start offering a new interpretation of the of the social situation. So they were saying, Yeah, we are not this good. But actually, this is because we have this kind of groups in the country, because politicians don't care about what they call their real Portuguese. Like if there were some people that are more Portuguese than other ones. So they start to promote a different narrative in which there are good people that are the bad ones. And every situation that happened in the country, every negative event, for example, is framed according to this perspective.

Eva Schaper  21:58
Oh, it seems like the algorithms seem to help them is that true?

Daniel Garcia  22:01
Social media for Ventura, his party Chega, is like the perfect platform for this kind of party leader. Because while traditional media, television, journals, newspapers have like editorial control. So they can, like cut certain parts, present Ventura, the party in a certain way, is on social media, they have the entire control of what they are promoting, what they want to say, he can freely attack certain groups that have been historically attacked in the past, and they are considered like vulnerable groups or certain parts of society can turn against these groups. So they find it social media, like the free space to get to a lot of people without boundaries, controlling the narrative that they are promoting. And even when they are sentient, because of what they're saying, in social media, they present that as they are the ones who are being attacked, they are the ones who are being censored, not because they are attacking others, but because the government don't want the party and Ventura to say this new narrative that they perceive as the truth.

Daiva Repeckaite  23:18
And then you'll also find that Ventura benefited from ambiguity around the pandemic.

Daniel Garcia  23:25
The post I analyze were those collected from the month before the presidential elections in 2021. So at the moment, they were not talking about the vaccines. But interestingly, they said, like the strategy to when people are promoting or reproducing certain discourses that promote violence and closure, they tend to present their themselves as polite person, like the one who embodies values, the base of the nation that is represented them. So he was like, "Oh, we have to respect that pandemic rules, because we are good people. So we care about all this." So at the beginning, he was not attacking the government because of the restrictions. But at the same time, he was saying that people who were struggling because of the restrictions was because the government didn't care about these people with the working class that he says to represent that he he's the one he's the face of all of them, even with without them saying that he's the leader. He just assumed that role. He was playing in both sides at the moment. We have to follow the rules, but at the same time the government is responsible for these people's problems because of the rules.

Daiva Repeckaite  24:49
Point is vaccination policy is just one topic where they can oppose the government and claim that the government is conspiring against the people. in his thesis Daniel wrote that, I quote, "despite this self victimization, Ventura defined himself repeatedly as being unstoppable, unshakable and persistent in his purpose to rescue the pure Portuguese".

Daniel Garcia  25:13
Everything for him is like, huge disgrace. So everything that the government is doing or other parties are doing, or not close to Chega is a big disgrace. Everyone in the country is a disgrace. So when he posts those things on social media, he a lot of people or agree with him engage with comments or attacking what Ventura said. But these in the end creates more, more engagement. And probably this is why when he was the only member of sugar party in parliament, he was one of the most members appearing in the media. And in social events, everybody knew who was being told at the moment and he was the only member of the party. Now they are 12 is like the same voice with but with 12 different speakers.

Eva Schaper  26:04
This is interesting, this very much seems to echo what we have in the hope not hate report. Remember, this is from January 2021. So it's over a year old. And they clearly say, and I'm quoting, "this hate speech normalizations by political actors, the intense diffusion of propaganda and social network disinformation, may add fuel to the racist and far right violent environment already seen in 2020. This context may benefit the creation of new movements and the extension of the far right social base in Portugal."

And before we leave, I just wanted to remind you that everything we talked about, and links to our script will be added to our website so that you can find them if you want to take a look for yourself. We'll also add a transcript for those of you who prefer to read what's in the podcast to then to listen,

Daiva Repeckaite  27:06
if you want to hear more stories about vaccine hesitancy, You can look up the inoculation wherever you'd like to listen to podcasts.

Eva Schaper  27:13
Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter, inoculated, you can find the link in our show notes.

Daiva Repeckaite  27:18
This investigation was supported by IJ4EU. find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And let us know what you think about this episode. Bye for now. Bye

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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