Portugal's animal-nature party poised as unlikely kingmaker

Polarized politics can allow previously niche interests to have majority-making influence. In Portugal, this may benefit an environmental party. 

Armando Franca/AP
Jerónimo de Sousa of the Communist Party, André Silva of the People-Animals-Nature Party and Catarina Martins of the Left Bloc, (left to right), wait to begin a televised election Sept. 23, 2019, in Lisbon. Mr. Silva's PAN party may be an unlikely kingmaker.

They want lower taxes on pet food and oppose bullfights: With these proposals, Portugal's People-Animals-Nature party could become a kingmaker in a national election next week, its ratings swelled by voters like car factory worker Alexandre Corona.

Six years ago, Mr. Corona turned vegetarian after watching a documentary about the suffering of animals in the food industry and started looking for a political reflection of his beliefs, which he found in the then little-known PAN.

"They defend animal rights: not just the rich ladies' kitties and pooches, but all the animals, and the environment, that's what attracted me," said Mr. Corona, a 40-year-old dog owner, who transcends PAN's typical big-city, student-age voter base.

The party's rise to a potentially decisive role in parliament is a sign of the times, in an age when the increasing fractiousness of politics in Western democracies is giving more power to movements once seen as having mainly niche appeal.

Mr. Corona voted PAN in the last election in 2015, helping it enter parliament for the first time with a single seat in the 230-seat house.

Now PAN has reached a turning point of its own, predicted to win four seats or more in an Oct. 6 parliamentary election. That could be just enough for Socialist Prime Minister António Costa to make PAN his new ally if he fails to win a full majority.

PAN leader André Silva, a vegetarian who scuba-dives and attends group movement sessions known as "biodance," told Reuters his party "does not see itself in the obsolete left-right dichotomy."

It is open to backing the government in parliament if it commits to making "a clear change in our productivist, oil-dependent, highly carbonized economy," he said.

Environmentalist parties in Europe are hardly new: Germany's Greens joined a national coalition government as far back as 1998. But the last few years have seen a surge in interest across the continent as the mainstream post-war center-left and center-right have lost their dominance. In Portugal's case, the Green Party has long been allied with the Communists, leaving an opening for a less ideological approach.

Aside from seeking more humane treatment of animals, PAN has urged the government to declare a climate emergency.

"With your help, we're still on time," heralds its campaign video released this week, calling to "elect people with the right mentality to embrace the emergency that is everyone's."

Oft-derided by critics as "The Animal Party" that values critter rights higher than human ones, PAN argues that it seeks to promote a better world of harmony between humans and nature.

With the budget almost balanced and the economy growing above the European average, Premier Costa's minority Socialist government is expected to win additional parliament seats but still fall a few short of a full majority, polls show.

Over the past four years, Mr. Costa has ruled with parliamentary backing from two far-left, eurosceptic parties – the Left Bloc and the Communists. But the relationship has been uncomfortable, with fights breaking out every year over the budget.

If, as some polls predict, the Socialists end up just one ally short of a majority, PAN could be a preferred partner. Unlike the far left, it is not opposed to European budgetary rules or Portugal's NATO commitments.

A Socialist party source who did not want to be identified said that internal projections showed PAN could get as many as seven seats, including three in Lisbon and two in Porto.

Mr. Costa has praised PAN's support for his government's budgets and expressed willingness "to continue working with PAN."

"In the objectives, there is no division between us," Mr. Costa told PAN's Mr. Silva in a recent television debate.

A government decision to postpone a planned auction of licenses to explore for lithium mining, at least until after the election, may have been a signal to PAN, which objects to such exploration in some parts of the country.

"In the past year, we've seen the more traditional parties talking about animals and the environment, copying PAN's agenda," said Mr. Corona, the party supporter. "It's just a hunt for votes. Had they been so worried they would have taken measures years ago."

This story was reported by Reuters. 

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