Portugal: Fame, Politics and Leadership

Like Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and other accessible European politicians, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is mobbed every time he appears in a public place and is in regular demand for selfies. You can even download an app, Marcelfie, developed by José Brízida, in case you are one of the few fans not to have a photograph with President Marcelo. Like those photobooths that let you share the shot with a pop star or footballer you have never met, Marcelfie satisfies fan desires by using filters to add the president to your selfie. He appears in a range of poses, including one where he is holding the camera.

Rebelo de Sousa presents himself as a figure of unity. Not in the Theresa May sense, saying one thing and doing another, but spending his time talking to different groups, working in different regions of Portugal and visiting other countries to make sure everyone with a stake in his country feels heard – or at least that is the aim. The media portrayal of the man is fairly consistent – he is popular, he is famous, he is moderate, he is unifying, this is good. He is, however, centre right, anti-abortion and has a history of attacking other politicians via his former role as political analyst and TV presenter.

Portugal has a semi-presidential system, so while President Marcelo is not the Prime Minister, and does not have the same role as the French President, he does outrank all other politicians and has influence and constitutional powers. Presidents are elected to a five-year term, and Rebelo de Sousa was elected in 2016, beating left-wing academic António Sampaio da Nóvoa. Rebelo de Sousa’s background is as a lawyer, law academic, PSD (social democratic party) leader, minister, journalist and cultural commentator.

Rebelo de Sousa created a centre-right coalition with the People’s Party while leader. This was unpopular with his own party’s membership – unsurprisingly, as the People’s Party is the only right of centre party in Portugal and its leader (Paulo Portas) remains the country’s leading conservative figure. Portas is a former journalist, like many politicians in the UK past and present.

Rebelo de Sousa was also vice president of the EU’s EPP group. Before he stood for president, he was well-known and well-liked, a household name, despite being described as “gelatina politica” (political jelly) by Manuel Maria Carrilho and a “catavento” (weathervane). How very Andy Burnham. It has been suggested that some Portuguese voters have a short memory when it comes to politicians, but Marcelo’s fans aren’t going to take that lying down. He was elected after his predecessor, Cavaco Silva, saw his public ratings plummet during his second term, and after a 2015 legislative (similar to general) election that led to a slow-to-form coalition requiring support from the Left Bloc and Communist parties. Chaos, if you will.

What does all this mean outside of Portugal? Not all our politicians manage to be academics and journalists like theirs seem to be, and as a country we have far more right of centre politicians and popular press. Well, for one, that not all past party leaders have to die to be seen as something other than a failure. For another, becoming an independent doesn’t mean crushing or replacing other parties, as the leaked CHUK-TIG document seemed to suggest of the Liberal Democrats, but can be an opportunity for genuine cross-party cooperation. Being famous and well-liked does not have to mean populist, though it can be dangerous.

Hilary Wainwright’s book about Labour as two parties was clear about the importance of a “active, popular base”. Insurgent factions know about this tactic. The Blair Revolution briefly built a mass membership party, enthused by the leadership. Corbynism copied it, it doesn’t stick around. Most people join political parties to vote for the leader or because they are excited by a new leader. A good chunk may stay to support them, more still stay subscribed out of inertia and don’t stay active unless they can get a safe seat as a councillor or MP. The current Labour and Conservative party bases… put people off. The other part of Wainwright’s argument to keep the left alive is around being “one of us”, and it is hard to persuade the average voter that any politician is that right now, especially when skeletons are dug up daily. A media narrative can’t fix that on its own.

Peter Mair wrote in 2013 about the hollowing out of Western democracy. He showed that anti-system parties and groups eventually moderate or fade away, although populism has resurged since then in the UK and elsewhere. CHUK-TIG started moderate, albeit with populist language about the people and the elites, and its strategic failures mean it will probably fade. Leftist Labour has moderated too much for some already, as the anti-system outriders move back to their original small parties or single-issue campaigns, some re-energised by Extinction Rebellion or Brexit issues. A different anti-system movement can easily seize the public imagination, just as Farage’s various vehicles are known to do, or Trumpism. Especially with another hung parliament as a serious possibility.

Portugal has a minority socialist government, albeit one with not a particularly leftist programme – it is focused on putting the country on a financial even keel, with less focus on investment, public services or environmental programmes. Like the 2017 Labour manifesto, a minority Corbyn government may similarly be pushed into a non-radical position, depending on the partners it needs to pass votes and the budget available. However, unlike Portugal, where voter turnout is dropping and only 48.66% of the population voted in the presidential election, the UK is not currently depoliticised. Thanks to Brexit, and years of technocratic suppression, it is very political, just not in ways that help system parties and candidates. That helps populists like Nigel Farage, but also candidates seen as non-system.

Anyone attached to Corbynism is seen as system at this point, it has been incorporated into the mainstream of the party and will be there long after the people involved are gone. Momentum has similarly become part of the furniture. A future successful Labour leader is unlikely to be on the list of hopefuls right now. They may not yet be in the Party or have left in the past, even be a former big beast like Rebelo de Sousa. If your interest is in sustainable politics that deals with the real problems society and the environment are facing, looking for a charismatic saviour or even just hoping your current favourite becomes leader probably won’t go your way. However, figures from recent history may re-emerge, and a non-arrogant commitment to pluralism and alliances from genuine mainstream contenders would not go amiss.