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

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

    SETUBAL, Portugal — The surprising voters driving the far right’s surge in Europe scrambled for selfies inside a suburban auditorium. Rita Matias, a 25-year old ultraconservative and social media influencer, had just called for migrant quotas and curbs on abortion in a political debate. Now, her more progressive opponents in staid blazers and pullovers watched 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 shyly shook his head. “No? Don’t worry. We’ll get you signed up.”

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

    The first major test is in Portugal, in an election on Sunday.

    Portugal’s populist Chega party is using social media to make gains with 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 center-left Socialists have been in power in Portugal since 2015. Left-wing politicians across Europe have looked to the country over the years as a model of success. Part of the explanation, analysts said, was that dark memories of a right-wing dictatorship that fell in 1974 kept populists at bay.

    Yet surveys suggest that younger Portuguese citizens without living memory of that era may help populists make major gains. The far-right Chega party is on track to become the top party for voters aged 18-34, potentially tripling its share of younger voters, to 22.5 percent, in just two years. Though polling in third place overall, Chega could serve as a kingmaker for a conservative coalition — or frustrate efforts to form a government by parties that refuse to partner with it.

    Some aspects of this shifting landscape are particular to Portugal. Prime Minister António Costa resigned and his Socialist party lost support as a result of an ongoing investigation into influence peddling.

    But the rise of Chega — “Enough” in English — is being viewed as a signal that the far right can surge anywhere in Europe, and that disenchanted youth can be convinced that ultraconservatism is cool.

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

    Once hailed for decriminalizing drugs, Portugal is now having doubts

    Matias, a Chega lawmaker in Portugal, ranks among the most popular of an expanding group of ultraconservative influencers who are blending identity politics and antics-filled infotainment, leaving mainstream parties struggling to respond. One of her Instagram videos — in which she dons aviator shades alongside her 41-year-old party leader — topped 3.6 million views in a country of 10 million.

    “The [mainstream] parties aren’t talking the language of the young, but these more radical parties are,” said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital, a Budapest-based think tank. “They are channeling the disillusionment of young voters with politics.”

    A youthquake across Europe

    In the Netherlands in November, anti-migrant stalwart Geert Wilders staged a shocking first-place finish in an election that saw his party claim the largest share of voters between 18-34.

    Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is counting on young voters to propel a victory in this year’s national election, after winning the largest share of the youth vote in regional elections in Salzburg last year.

    Dutch election shows far right rising and reshaping Europe

    Similarly, in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party finished third overall in last year’s state elections in Bavaria but saw its biggest gains with voters under 25. This fall, it is hoping for a big boost from younger voters in elections in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia — three AfD strongholds.

    In France, centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s appointment of 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as prime minister may reflect a realization that the far right has been actively courting the youth vote. Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, is rallying support at nightclubs and was recently listed among France’s Top 50 celebrities by Le Journal du Dimanche.

    Cultivating the young could pay off big in key European Parliament elections in June. The far right in France and across Europe is expected to post their strongest numbers since the founding of the European Union.

    Messages vary from country to country — with Austria’s Freedom Party particularly trafficking in old Nazi symbolism and deploying propaganda alleging migrants are “replacing” white Europeans. But many other far-right parties are doubling down on the economic plight of young Europeans, who remain resentful of relatively high youth unemployment, low wages, painful inflation and high real estate prices plaguing Europe.

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

    On enemy turf in a liberal Lisbon suburb, Matias scarfed down Chicken McNuggets on a recent afternoon before racing to meet her mentor, Chega founder André Ventura, to knock on voters’ doors.

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

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

    She began as his social media coordinator following the launch of the party in 2019. Soon after, Ventura decided she should be a face of the party on social media, too. She was among the Chega lawmakers elected to parliament in 2022, when the party increased its seat count from one to 12.

    Chega’s postmodern political machine — informed 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 misinformation and social media clickbait that is ideal for luring disenchanted youth.

    Ventura, who has demonized the Roma community and said a Black lawmaker should be “returned to her own country,” uses social media platforms to engage with youth in more entertaining ways — recently posting a TikTok video of himself dancing to the Brazilian Lambada.

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

    Asked what it is like going up against “an influencer,” Diogo Mira, a politician from the left who debated Matias, said: “It makes me feel horrible. Young people prefer those who do TikToks. They prefer sound bites. Chega is indoctrinating them.”

    Matias has criticized Portuguese schools that allow transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding to how they think of themselves, but she backs creating separate transgender bathrooms, so everyone can feel “comfortable.”

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

    There is no data showing an increase in sexual assault.

    “It can 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 leading cause — and saw a bounce in the polls after the Socialist-led government crumbled last year. Ventura quickly rolled out billboards saying: “Portugal needs a cleanse.”

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

    In January, for instance, Ventura, trying to score points on migration, said foreigners made up 30 percent of the population of Braga, a city in Portugal’s north. The fact checking body Polígrafo places the actual number no higher than 7.9 percent.

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

    Real voter intention polls suggest the Socialists have bled young voters, though many of Chega’s gains appear to have come from the center right, or the massive ranks of apathetic nonvoters, especially those in urban areas like Lisbon where soaring property values and low salaries are fueling frustrations among young Portuguese.

    The young 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 major who recently attended a university debate to hear Matias speak. He switched to Chega from the center-right, calling the far right the best force “against the wave of brutal immigration that is happening in the country.”

    “Chega offers young people what they need — housing, offering a down payment on their first home,” he said. “The Portuguese are losing jobs and going abroad because they can’t find jobs in Portugal. [Chega] addresses what young people are facing.”

    Kate Brady in Berlin contributed to this report.

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