„(Hi)Story of Debate in Portugal“ by Ary Ferreira Da Cunha

Datum: 18. Dezember 2013
Kategorie: International, Mittwochs-Feature

In March 2008, I sat with a few friends at the University of Porto, Faculty of Law, and we decided to create “the debate society”. That made some sense at the time since we felt like we were completely alone: there was no other debate society in Portugal, international tournaments sounded like something completely out of reach, and we didn’t know any other debaters. Many didn’t even know what debate was: professors and students were afraid we would be a façade for some political party and the idea that debate could have a place outside partisan politics sounded weird to many.

But it was the age of the blog. At a peak there were more than eighty of them active in the Faculty of Law, a handful of which with hundreds of daily visitors, and dozens of comments per post. That created the belief that there was a need for a forum where passionate people could discuss relevant topics with each other, where they could learn from each other, where they could freely exchange ideas – little did we know: there was a market for them too.

Creating a debate society sounded like a daunting project, and it was. We were met not only with suspicion, but also often cynicism: we heard countless times that “no one cares”. Struggling to persuade people to come to our activities, to work with us, to sponsor us, it was hard not to demoralize, as the noes always outnumbered the yeses.

National tournament in Portugal (c) Micael Pereira

National tournament in Portugal
(c) Micael Pereira

A Slow Climb

Things started to take shape. Soon another debate society was born in the Faculty of Economics, and little over a year later we decided to merge into the University of Porto Debate Society. We then decided to take things to the next level and started competing in international tournaments in November 2010 (IDAS). The following summer we organized the first International Debate Camp – an event which combines world-class training, a relaxed competition, daily outdoor activities and a day just for sightseeing, wine tasting and other nice experiences in Porto. Soon we had five debate societies in Portugal – Porto, Lisbon, Minho, Vila Real and Coimbra, later joined by Nova Lisbon – and in February 2012, we were organizing our first national tournament, Torneio Nacional de Debates Universitários (also known as TORNADU). More tournaments followed: the Lisbon Open, Coimbra Open, Minho Open, UTAD Debate Academy, and other smaller or punctual competitions – for now all of which in Portuguese. Tournaments are not very large, but they have become increasingly competitive – sometimes perhaps too much… – and new wave of debate societies is currently appearing in Aveiro, the Catholic University, and in the Institute for Social and Political Sciences. The current debate societies now boast over a 1000, though only some 200 could be considered active. We have been incredibly lucky to find incredible people in most of the country’s leading universities: full of energy, passion and talent, willing to make sacrifices in their personal and academic lives to assume leadership positions in their debate societies.

Internationally, the economic crisis accentuated the effects of our relative geographic isolation – the closest international IV outside Portugal is in Paris. Most of our debaters cannot afford travelling abroad for a debate competition; universities have received huge cuts to their budget; sponsors are scarce, and often don’t trust students’ initiatives. Still, so far five debate societies have made their debut in international competitions, whose members participated in 25 international competitions in the past three years. Results have been a mix of failures and successes; but we have had teams breaking in seven of those competitions, and judges breaking in five of them. Many of these positive results have been from Porto, but not all: Coimbra sent large contingents to a few tournament, Cláudia Freitas (Minho) reached the quarter-finals of IDAS 2012, and João Francisco Sá (Lisbon) has seen some recognition internationally as judge.


In the Spring of 2012, after a fair share of disappointments, Tiago Laranjeiro and I teamed up together, started muddling our way through the tab and improving our results reaching the ESL final of the Oxford IV. We felt prepared to take on the task of making it the WUDC 2013, where we won the EFL category, and took home the prizes for best speaker, 6th best speaker, and best speaker in the final. The victory had a significant media impact at home, raising awareness for debate in Portugal and it likely played a role in helping us get a sponsor for the national debate movement: “Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos” (FFMS). “And everyone lived happily forever after”…

This would probably be the best way to end this story: a compelling tale of how a few friends in a college bar who started out a movement a thousand people strong and won the world’s greatest debate competition – though in its least prestigious category. There are no happy endings for those behind the curtain.

Ary Ferreira Da Cunha (c) Rui Duarte Silva

Ary Ferreira Da Cunha
(c) Rui Duarte Silva


It hasn’t become much easier to find more people with a passion for it. In a country where half of the past 500 years were spent under the inquisition, and half of the past 100 under a dictatorship, debate is sophistry, deceit, proselytism, vanity, intellectual arrogance or egotism in disguise. “What’s the point of it, if in the end there is no conclusion?”. Furthermore, many of the first societies to appear are now reaching a critical point where they need to renew their boards and capture new talent, not just for debate but also for organizing.

“Old habits die hard”, but new ones seem hard to catch. People don’t see debate as something useful – an opportunity to improve your analysis and communication skills – neither as something fun – a chance to travel and make friendships with people from different academic and cultural backgrounds.

May be what’s missing is to present debate as an exercise of empathy, where we tell others why should they care for others – the poor, the future generations, women, children, gays, among other CA favourites. Debate doesn’t just provide you with analysis and communication skills to stand-up for yourself, but also to stand-up for others, and – more importantly – to show others how to stand-up for themselves. That’s essential for an informed and participative citizenry, demanding and exercising accountability, and from which leaders better equip to make decisions that promote the public interest, and to render account can emerge.


The hidden part of the Portuguese debating history is that this is not its first incarnation. In 1999, the “Lisbon Debate Society” was formed, and the following year debate societies in Porto, Coimbra, Minho and Viseu appeared – a national circuit very similar to the current one. They organized national tournaments, went to competitions abroad, and some speakers even had significant success – Pedro Delgado Alves (Lisbon) – was best ESL speaker in a British tournament. I attended part of a tournament back then, probably in 2004, while in high school; but when I entered university in 2006, it was all gone: no competitions, no societies, and no one seemed to remember that they ever existed! For years we thought that tournament had been a one-off thing organized but an English lecturer (John Ross) with his students and a few other people.

Catharsis and Anti-Catharsis

We don’t believe history is going to repeat itself. The movement is still expanding to other universities; participation in international competitions is stronger than it was a decade ago, allowing faster learning; there are many talented debaters in a number of societies; some high school debating is starting to emerge; better means of communication help organize and coordinate events, and improve the speed and quality of collective decisions both in each society and in across the movement.

If the history of Portuguese debating can tell how that much can be accomplished in so little time by a group of determined people, its pre-history should be a reminder to us all that our ability to do a good work depends on making ourselves dispensable when we are gone; on training people willing to pass on their skills; on sustaining, if not true friendships, at least networks of solidarity between societies; on forwarding the message that here we don’t just debate for ourselves – even if debate is incredibly useful and fun – but also because we want to help build a new generation of informed, participative, demanding and empathic citizens and better leaders.

Our (his)story may not be that extraordinary, but at least for me it seems to convey a couple of useful teachings. And if it lacks a proper end its because it is still unfolding: as some bow before the curtain, new characters are coming to age, leading the plot to unexpected new adventures, shaping the story of debate in Portugal. I am pretty sure this won’t be the last time you hear about us.

Ary Ferreira da Cunha/ak


Das Mittwochs-Feature: every Wednesday at 9am, the „Wednesday- Feature“ introduces an idea, a debate, a book or a person. If you want to kick of a debate, send us your proposal via email (team [at] achteminute [dot] de).

Ary Ferreira da Cunha (24) is a PhD student in Law at University of Porto and was a visiting doctoral student at the universities of Oxford and Utrecht. He founded the oldest Portuguese debate society, presids over its first National Council, and was WUDC 2013 EFL champion and best speaker.

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2 Kommentare zu “„(Hi)Story of Debate in Portugal“ by Ary Ferreira Da Cunha”

  1. Konrad sagt:

    Funny how beginning seem familiar regardless the country – West or East of Europe, finding money for tournaments and convincing the university is a tough task. Good to know that you made it, at least to some extent. It gives other communities hope.

    Strange that there is no debate culture in Spain!

  2. Alex L. (DD) sagt:

    @Konrad: There is a Spanish debating culture but mostly in Spanish itself as can be seen by the Spanish-language Worlds which took place in Madrid this year. Why should you bother to learn another language if you already can talk to 750 million people all over the world? 😉

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