Why is the Portuguese government in crisis?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 5 Min Read
origin 1Protesters push an effigy of Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa towards the parliament during a trade union demonstration in Lisbon, July 2022. ©Armando Franca/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

When Carla Alves took office as Secretary of State for Agriculture on Wednesday, little did she know that, just 25 hours later, she would be out of work.

Alves is the latest minister to resign: the fourth victim of the current Portuguese government of António Costa in just one week.

It triggered yet another reshuffle, in what is already considered the biggest crisis of confidence that has shaken Costa’s leadership.

At a time when the Portuguese government is increasingly under scrutiny, it quickly emerged that several bank accounts involving her husband Américo Pereira, a former mayor, had been seized.

The resignation didn’t take long.

TAP: The eye of the storm

Alves’ departure might have gone unnoticed if it hadn’t been the latest in a long series of resignations, which led opposition politicians to table a motion of no confidence in the government.

A crisis at TAP Air Portugal was the time bomb that triggered the latest wave of exits.

The airline, taken over by the state in 2021, paid compensation of around half a million euros to Alexandra Reis, future secretary of state for the treasury, when she left the company.

Shortly after, she became CEO of NAV, the public company that manages Portuguese air traffic.

TAPgate: Portuguese government resigns over liquidation controversy

Even though it was within the bounds of the law, the large compensation paid to Reis by a state-owned company struggling with his finances shocked everyone.

At the request of another minister, Reis resigned from her government post after just 26 days.

This triggered a wave of further resignations. The case has thrown the spotlight on TAP and the minister in charge of the airline, Pedro Nuno Santos, who is expected to step down soon.

But first the scandal led to the dismissal of the Secretary of State for Infrastructures, Hugo Mendes, followed by the holder of the powerful Ministry of Infrastructures and Housing.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Marina Gonçalves, also resigned but was promoted to minister of the same portfolio for which she was responsible.

A government in danger?

Despite being under fire, the current PS government may be safe, as it has an absolute majority in the Assembly of the Republic which allows it to govern unhindered until 2026.

However, if this crisis continues to snowball, the mounting pressure could even lead to the president of Portugal dissolving the parliament.

When asked on Tuesday how he was following the government crisis, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said: “If it works, it’s a good idea. If not, we’ll draw conclusions,” hinting at the possibility of direct intervention.

To save credibility and avoid future risky appointments, the government has proposed a mechanism that “will avoid ignoring the facts”, according to Prime Minister Costa.

Government reshuffle in Portugal after the scandal “shocked” the country

A detailed proposal outlining the mechanism has already been sent by letter to the President of the Republic.

Known as a scrutiny, it will involve examining every candidate proposed for a government job, who must also be accepted by parliament or a committee before taking office.

Similar mechanisms are used in several countries and in the European Commission.

Details of the government’s proposal are not known, but the president removed himself from the scrutiny process, saying “the scrutiny should happen before the names are proposed to the president, not after.”

This vetting could be the government’s decisive card to defuse a crisis whose proportions, just over a week ago, no one could have imagined.

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