I will begin this week’s column with a confession, hoping for your understanding and forgiveness.
Between you and me, one of the reasons (or excuses?) I have for not immersing and hot-housing myself in the Portuguese language is that I quite enjoy – most of the time – not understanding what is going on around me. Having grasped the survivalist basics of cafe and bar lingo, and enough to get by in the most basic of conversations often with cross-cultural body language, I’d estimate my linguistic age to be that of around a five-year-old, in Portuguese years.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoy the thought of having escaped British people moaning in pubs or on public transport, with their mainstay of polite and rudimentary small talk.
So here I sit, in similar circumstances, oblivious to what is going on and hoping that my Portuguese neighbours and passers-by are chattering about the best wine or pastry they’ve had recently. Or even saying, “that foreigner seems like a nice enough chap”, when, of course, they are probably moaning about life here, just like the folks back home, and probably everywhere – once you deeply understand what other people are saying.
Naturally (or should that be normally?), politics will be a catalyst, and plentiful source of fuel, for such everyday exchanges, which I imagine again is a global phenomenon. Given the recent upheavals in the political scene here in Portugal, I have found myself a little frustrated by my lack of nuance and nous, left wanting to know more as breaking news unfolded, detailing António Costa’s resignation.
What I do know about Portuguese politics is that people here are certainly no less cynical or negative about those they vote for and against. Comparing the attitudes I’ve solicited about the political class here, I’d even go as far as to say there’s an almost savage hostility. I refer here to the electorate and their feelings towards so-called leaders, as well as the discourse between those in the actual job, vying for power and supremacy as they attempt to climb their slippery political poles.
Perhaps then, ignorance about politics IS bliss when all’s said and done (where so much is clearly said but little is in the end done), so this social-age five-year-old could be making the right call. But with that said, and in the spirit of a certain Good Morning Portugal! co-host, Andy ‘The Doc’ Thompson, who says “if you don’t do politics, politics will do you”, read on if you’d like a little insight with my quick (and optional) guide to Portuguese politics for foreigners…
Starting at grass roots, let’s consider the freguesia (phonetically: frega-zia), which could be considered either the third or first level of government in Portugal, depending on how you look at it. This is the most local of local government, what I from the UK would understand as the “parish” council, oversight of civic matters at literally the most parochial.
In Portugal, a freguesia usually takes the name of the most significant human gathering in a locality, often a neighbourhood, and where further freguesia sub-division is necessary, a local landmark or saint might lend a name to identify the geographical scope.
Since the 1970s, this local level of governance has been formed by a pairing of executive and deliberative bodies. In my romantic adoration, and proclivity for local power and representation, this level strikes me as participatory and functional. But what would I, as an under-10 in Portuguese social age, really know about this?
The assembleia de freguesia is elected by the public every four years, where the president of the parish board will also be a member of the municipal assembly at the Câmara Municipal, which you may also be familiar with from your own bureaucratic missions.
Local presidents amass to form the executive body of a municipality, where the Câmara members are known as vereadores (councillors). Incidentally, Câmara is often used as a reference to the building where the municipal chamber offices are located, think ‘City Hall’, although Paços do Concelho (Palace of the Council) is the correct title.
From here, it would appear those with a head for political heights make their way into national, party politics, aspiring perhaps to ultimately become Prime Minister or President after making their mark in the Assembly of the Republic AKA the ‘unicameral’ parliament of Portugal, our next stop on this tour.
Constitutionally known as “the representative assembly of all Portuguese citizens”, the Assembleia da República has since 1834 been located in Lisbon at the Palace of Saint Benedict (Palácio de São Bento). Elected by popular vote for a four-year term from the country’s 24 constituencies, between 180 and 230 members gather. Interestingly, and according to the constitution, these assembly members (deputados) represent the entire country, not just their constituency, useful perhaps for political parties seeking to deliver or dominate a national agenda.
The President of the Assembly (not to be confused with the country’s actual President) is elected by secret vote of the members of parliament, and is the second hierarchical figure in the Portuguese state, after the President of the Portuguese Republic.
Portugal is considered a semi-presidential parliamentary republic, where the prime minister is the head of government, the country’s leading political figure, and de facto chief executive – someone who we have all got to know more intimately in recent times. PMs are appointed by the President after legislative elections.
There is no limit to the number of terms a person can serve as prime minister. Usually, the person named is the leader of the largest party in the election, but there have been exceptions over the years. António Costa was fairly recently into his third term, in total eight years, before facing the ‘plot twist’ that caused him to resign.
From a constitutional perspective, the duties of the prime minister are to coordinate the actions of ministers, represent Portugal to the other bodies of state, be accountable to parliament, and keep the President informed. Their official residence is a mansion next to São Bento Palace, which, confusingly, is called São Bento Palacete.
The President of Portugal, officially the ‘President of the Portuguese Republic’ (Presidente da República Portuguesa), is the head of state and holds the highest office in Portugal. Their powers, functions and duties have throughout history varied according to changing Portuguese constitutions. Currently, in this, the Third Republic, the President holds no direct executive power, unlike his counterparts in the United States and France. However, unlike most European presidents, who are largely ceremonial figures, the Portuguese President is vested with more extensive powers, especially in national security and foreign policy.
The greatest power, as seen recently, is an ability to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, which can also extend to the entire government and also the dissolution of parliament. The current President of Portugal is, of course, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, often referred to as simply ‘Marcelo’.
After the events of recent weeks, arguably months and years, and the ongoing predictable power churn here and around the world, the Portuguese political Pandora’s Box is there for any foreigner’s opening.
Whilst ignorance has, so far, certainly been blissful for me, might digging around further in the darker recesses of domestic politics only make me and you more world weary and cynical? Are we likely to discover that politics here is just like that of our original countries, those politics that may have even been a notable motivator in our decision to leave?
In one interpretation of the Pandora legend, Greek poet Theognis of Megara is thought to have uttered: “Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind”. This seems to be so, when we look at us humans crying foul, crying for change and later crying about corruption, in a most predictable and tiresome way.
Yet, despite our disappointments, it looks like hope continues to abide in us all just like Pandora discovered with that box – wherever we live and whether we understand what is going on around us, or not.
At times like this, I thank goodness hope endures, especially when badness abounds. Allegedly.