Checkmate: Portugal’s political crisis plays perfectly into PM’s hands

PM travels to Brussels as political backbiting hogs headlines

As the Resident went to press, prime minister António Costa was on his way to a strategic dinner debate on the EU’s political priorities for the future. Notwithstanding oblique recent comments that he could not imagine “another public role” – an expression he then changed to “another executive role” – it truly does look as if the country’s outgoing political leader is considering a job in Brussels, every bit as pundits have been suggesting throughout the last tumultuous year in which his government has been assailed by so many scandals the electorate has lost count.

Exactly a year ago, opposition parties were calling for the dissolution of parliament. The previous nine months had seen the government lose 11 MPs for various less-than-exemplary reasons; the TAP golden handshake scandal had just seen the fall of the then minister of infrastructure (his predecessor has also since resigned); and President Marcelo was ostensibly ‘sternly’ putting his government on warning: it had to govern; it had to maintain the stability Portugal so badly needed.

But Marcelo’s ‘line in the sand’, his insistence in seeing a government govern was, in the final analysis, more the performance of an exasperated schoolmaster giving unruly pupils ‘one last chance’.

Since last Christmas, the political situation in Portugal has simply gone from bad to worse – the final straw being ‘Operation Influencer’ in which public prosecutors ‘searched’ the prime minister’s official residence to find ‘undeclared money’ stashed in hidey-holes in the office of his chief of staff.

The PM seized on one paragraph at the end of a press release from the Attorney General’s Office on ‘Operation Influencer’, indicating that a separate investigation had been opened (in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice) into suspicions that his name may have been used to ‘unblock proceedings’ that were under investigation.

Many say there was no reason at all for his resignation on these grounds.

Yes, there was every reason to resign following the discovery of undeclared money in the office of the prime minister’s ‘right hand man’ – but none at all for a simple ‘autonomous investigation’, which may end up discovering nothing incriminating whatsoever.

Equally, there was no reason for Marcelo to ‘dissolve parliament’, say political commentators.

If stability was truly what Portugal’s head of State wanted, he could conceivably have accepted a new leader be chosen from within the PS Socialist party. But he didn’t – and this is where commentators are drawn on what has really been going on in Portuguese politics.

Has it all been an ‘infanto-institutional duel’ between the ‘people’s president’ and the ‘much-admired’ PM, as political writer Miguel Sousa Tavares has suggested?

If it has, there is no question as to who has won: Mr Costa is off dining in Paris (at the invitation of the president of the European Council, Charles Michel), while the country is riven by ugly political battles.

PS Socialists are divided over who should succeed António Costa; PSD social democrats are trying to put a brave face on the fact that they have a fairly lacklustre ‘top man’ in their corner, and all the other parties are busy saying what they will and will not be prepared to do.

Much worse, the ‘people’s president’ – the darling of the media during his first mandate – is looking tired, outplayed; he is even involved in an unseemly investigation into whether or not his ‘influence’ saw terminally-sick Brazilian twin babies given red carpet treatment by the country’s teetering public health service (SNS), at €4 million-worth of expense.

SIC’s satirical show on Sundays has been taking pot-shots at Marcelo for months: making fun of his voice; his misplaced comments (informing young women that their cleavage is too revealing, or that they are so overweight their chair may not take their weight…) All in all, Marcelo’s presidential allure has been tarnished and, with it, the optimism of the nation seems to have imploded too.

Recent polls suggest there will be no winners from the upcoming legislative election (March 10, 2024). Whatever result wins through, it is increasingly likely that it will need to involve a coalition, or coalitions, which rarely spell the ‘stability’ that Marcelo claims to have been striving for since 2016.

And then there is the reality that ‘election fever’ is really an exercise in wasting precious time: the country is crying out for decisions, whether over doctors’ pay and conditions, teachers’ pay and conditions, the critical lack of housing that is seeing parents lose custody of their children, rising unemployment … there is no end to the problems stacking up for the next administration that can comfortably be described as possessing no visionaries.

2023 began in a political quagmire and the mud has simply become even stodgier.

Can central bank governor maintain his ‘position of respect’?

 Even the Governor of the Bank of Portugal has been affected by the current political crisis: the members of the bank’s ethics committee may have seen nothing wrong in Mário Centeno considering a quick shimmy back into politics to ‘save the day’ (an idea favoured initially by António Costa, and causing further national upset after Mr Centeno told the Financial Times that he had been invited by the President of the Republic to lead a new government – something President Marcelo categorically denied).

But many observers saw everything wrong with the scenario – and a number of European members of Parliament have put their reservations in writing, to the European Central Bank, to which Mr Centeno should be beholden.

The upshot of this is that the ECB’s ethics committee is now looking into what does indeed smack of political interference in an institution that should have no truck with politics (even if its leader was chosen by the prime minister, and used to be a member of government).

ECB president Christine Lagarde said this week that she is awaiting the committee’s analysis “and will respond after receiving its evaluation”.

As she stressed, the “independence of the decision-making organs of the ECB is essential for the fulfilment of their mandate”.

COMMENT By Natasha Donn
[email protected]

Portugal Resident