In one breathtaking week of ‘breaking news’, public prosecutors have searched the official residence of the prime minister, the homes of government ministers and well-connected friends and businesspeople, arrested five, cited more as ‘official suspects’ and presented an investigation, dubbed Operation Influencer, redolent with suspicions of cronyism and influence-trafficking at the highest levels of central power.
As a result, the government has fallen, elections have been called and the country is in a state of political meltdown.
Seven days into this drama and the shocks keep on coming: on Monday, the five arrested in Operation Influencer’s first major swoop (six days previously) were all released from custody with the original suspicions of ‘corruption’ wiped from the potential charge sheet.
Public prosecutors have announced they will be ‘appealing’ the decision (delivered by a judge of criminal instruction), but, for now, this whole episode is looking hugely embarrassing – principally for the image of the country, and that of judicial authorities.
Within the unfortunate mix there have been other truly dismal ‘lows’:
- Outgoing prime minister António Costa (see box) told reporters last week that he would have preferred the president to have opted to continue with PS Socialists in government … under the premiership of the governor of the Bank of Portugal. Considering the governor (Mário Centeno) only recently shimmied through the revolving doors of power from finance minister in Mr Costa’s government to the head of Portugal’s central bank, the thought that he could just shimmy back again and take the reins of the country has upset constitutionalists and many more who cite ‘institutional ethics’ as a stumbling block (see story on page 10). But there is more: Mário Centeno ‘broke his silence’ on Sunday to tell the Financial Times that he had been ‘invited’ to form a new government by the President of the Republic and the (outgoing) prime minister. No sooner had the story started circulating than President Marcelo issued a denial that he had ever invited anyone to form a new Socialist government… and now there are calls for even Mário Centeno to step down.
- Infrastructure minister João Galamba, already a minister carrying a great deal of baggage (not least the president’s own sentiments that he was unfit to remain in office) is one of the nine ‘official suspects’ named so far in Operation Influencer – and searches of his residence in Lisbon came up with ‘drugs’ (admittedly in a quantity acceptable for own consumption. It is not considered a crime, but it is illegal to be in possession of drugs). On Friday, he told a parliamentary committee that he had “no intention of resigning” from his post, and still had “all the conditions” to lead the Ministry of Infrastructure. On Monday, he was gone.
- On Saturday, during ‘prime time’ evening news, the now acting prime minister ‘addressed the nation’ in a speech that left commentators agog. Ostensibly an apology for the envelopes of money that had been discovered hidden in the office of his chief of staff at the official residency in São Bento, it developed into a defence for what he called “the freedom for political action”. Bottom line: investment is so important for Portugal that the government must be free to attract it in the way it does best. Oh, and he denied his much-touted ‘best friend’, at the time still in police cells, was his best friend: “A prime minister has no friends…”
WHY DID ANTÓNIO COSTA RESIGN?
Since taking office in February 2022, the PS absolute majority government has weathered several scandals. Operation Influencer (see box) has been different because of one paragraph in the original statement from the Attorney General’s press office explaining that a separate criminal investigation has been opened by the Supreme Court of Justice into suspicions that the prime minister had facilitated business in lithium mines in Montalegre and Boticas. That one paragraph is what the PM cited as his reason for stepping aside.
WHAT IS OPERATION INFLUENCER ALL ABOUT?
This is the ‘big question’ – in light of the release of all five official suspects when public prosecutors had asked for much stronger bail measures. According to the original statements from the Attorney General’s Office, Operation Influencer centres on permissions given to:
- the Romano and Barroso lithium mines in Montalegre and Boticas
- a project for green hydrogen in Sines
- a mega-project for a data centre in Sines
suspicions being that these were all given the benefit of high-level nods and winks, if not a lot more in between.
The original list of possible crimes involved a number of active and passive corruption. These have since ‘disappeared’ in light of the decision on Monday (freeing all the suspects) which public prosecutors are now challenging.
With television channels discussing almost nothing but this crisis for the last week, there have been a share of ‘talking heads’ who have described these events as “a judicial coup d’état” – a way of getting rid of an absolute majority government, without actually having anything more than ‘suspicions’ and ‘allegations’.
But there will be more to all this to come, in as much as Observador online on Monday reported that the judge who scuppered the public prosecutors’ pretentions, did find “strong evidence” in the case file that suggests the wining and dining of ministers João Galamba (now gone) and Duarte Cordeiro (still saying there is no reason for him to go), as well as the president of Portuguese environment agency APA, “could constitute the offence of offering an undue advantage” – and this is, when all is said and done, the underlying problem: the old boys’ club that operates, to an extent, in most countries, but which in the final analysis is ‘not the way things should work’.
According to Opposition PSD leader Luís Montenegro, “This is the third time in 22 years that the same people, the same policies and the same pattern of government have brought a swamp to Portuguese democracy (…) Portugal cannot tolerate or admit that important investment or public funding decisions can be made with any other criteria than exclusively the public interest” (see story on page 11).
Thus, the battle is on now: Costa’s former Infrastructure Minister Pedro Nuno Santos has put himself forwards as the ‘new leader’ of the PS Socialist party (something that is still subject to an internal leadership contest), while Luís Montenegro (PSD) will be trying to show the electorate in time for election day on March 10, 2024, that there is another way – and it doesn’t need to end in people being carted off in handcuffs.