Portugal's new minority government aims to outmaneuver its radical right populist rivals

FILE - Luis Montenegro, leader of the center-right Democratic Alliance, delivers a speech to supporters claiming victory in Portugal's election, in Lisbon, on March 11, 2024. Portugal’s new center-right minority government is due to take office Tuesday April 2, 2024. Only one of the 17 ministers being sworn in at a ceremony in Lisbon has previous government experience. Even Prime Minister Luis Montenegro has never been in government before. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

By BARRY HATTON Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s new center-right minority government was due to take office Tuesday, days after its first test in parliament exposed both the pitfalls and the opportunities it faces following a radical right populist party’s sudden surge in support in a recent general election.

Only one of the 17 ministers being sworn in at a ceremony in Lisbon has previous government experience. Even Prime Minister Luis Montenegro, who promised a Cabinet made up of specialists from outside the usual political circles, has never sat in government before.

Some key members of the Cabinet have spent time in Brussels and are familiar with the European Union’s corridors of power. They include Foreign Minister Paulo Rangel and Defense Minister Nuno Melo, who were European lawmakers from 2009. Portugal, a country of 10.3 million people, is receiving more than 22 billion euros ($23.6 billion) through 2026 from the EU to fuel growth and enable economic reforms.

Finance Minister Joaquim Miranda Sarmento, a Lisbon university professor, is likely to have a prominent role as the new administration seeks to keep a lid on what in the past has been ruinous government overspending. He wants fiscal policies to help drive investment and saving.

An alliance led by the Social Democratic Party clinched a narrow win in last month’s election, capturing 80 seats in the 230-seat National Assembly, Portugal’s parliament.

The center-left Socialist Party, which for decades has alternated in power with the Social Democrats, collected 78 seats.

A new ingredient is adding to the political unpredictability around the minority government’s prospects: the Chega (Enough) populist party picked up 50 parliamentary seats, up from just 12 in a 2022 election, on a promise to disrupt what it calls the establishment’s politics-as-usual.

Consequently, the election of parliament’s speaker last week brought an unprecedented problem — and an unprecedented solution.

The Chega party made good on its promise to upset the old way of doing things, standing in the way of the incoming government’s candidate for speaker and delivering an embarrassing defeat for Montenegro, the new prime minister and leader of the Social Democratic Party.

Chega leader Andre Ventura wants the Social Democrats to join his party in a right-of-center parliamentary alliance. That would create an overall majority and place Chega at the heart of power. But Montenegro is so far saying no to that.

Instead, Montenegro left Chega out in the cold by striking a deal with the Socialists, his party’s traditional rival, for a speaker named by each party to serve two-year terms.

It’s the kind of deal Montenegro may be forced to do again over the next four years.