Why is Portugal’s government in crisis?

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

Alves is the latest minister to resign — the fourth casualty of António Costa’s current Portuguese government in just one week.

It triggered yet another reshuffle, amid what is already considered the biggest confidence crisis shaking Costa’s leadership.

At a time when Portugal’s government is increasingly under scrutiny, that several bank accounts involving her husband Américo Pereira, a former mayor, had been seized quickly came to light. 

The resignation did not take long. 

TAP: The eye of the hurricane

Alves’ exit might have passed unnoticed if it had not been the latest in a long line of resignations, which have led opposition politicians to table a motion of no confidence in the government.

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

The airline, which was 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. 

She shortly afterwards became the CEO of NAV, the public company that manages Portuguese air traffic.

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

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

This triggered a spate of more resignations. The case turned the spotlight on TAP and the minister in charge of the airline, Pedro Nuno Santos, who himself would soon quit. 

But first the scandal led to the departure of the Secretary of State for Infrastructures, Hugo Mendes, followed by the owner of the powerful ministry of infrastructures and housing. 

Sectary of State for Housing, Marina Gonçalves, also resigned but was promoted to minister of the same portfolio she was in charge of. 

A government in danger?

Despite being under fire, the current PS government could be secure, as it has an absolute majority in the Assembly of the Republic allowing it to govern unhindered until 2026. 

However, should this crisis continue to snowball, the mounting pressure may even lead the President of Portugal to dissolve the parliament.

Asked on Tuesday how he was following the crisis in the government, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said: “If this works it is a good idea. If not, we will draw conclusions from it,” 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 facts”, according to Prime Minister Costa. 

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

Known as vetting, it will involve scrutinising each proposed candidate for a government job, who must also be accepted by parliament or a commission before taking office. 

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

Details of the government proposal are not known, but the President has taken himself out of the scrutiny process, saying that “vetting should happen before the names are proposed to the President, not afterwards.”

This vetting could be the government’s decisive card to defuse a crisis which, little more than a week ago, no one could have guessed the proportions of.

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