Prime minister António Costa (centre), pictured with Sintra mayor Basílio Horta (left) and other members of the government before an “informal” Council of Ministers meeting at Monserrate Palace in Sintra on July 8
Prime minister António Costa (centre), pictured with Sintra mayor Basílio Horta (left) and other members of the government before an “informal” Council of Ministers meeting at Monserrate Palace in Sintra on July 8

Corruption? Not today, thank you …

PM in trouble over stance on latest corruption scandal rocking defence ministry

Saturday saw prime minister António Costa deflect questions on the alleged corrupt practices behind the 13th resignation from his government in 15 months, on the basis that it wasn’t the subject that most concerned the Portuguese.

No sooner had he given his explanation for a refusal to engage than a torrent of criticism let rip.

The decision to cite former Secretary of State for Defence Marco Capitão Ferreira as the 20th official suspect in Operation Perfect Storm – which focuses on suspicious contracts forged in arguably the country’s most strategic ministry, and ‘slippages’ of several million euros – appears to have been the last brick shoring up a dam just waiting to burst.

It followed what is being seen as a blatant whitewash of the recent parliamentary inquiry into management decisions at TAP; the almost unreported election of former health ministry Marta Temido to the PS council of Lisbon in a contest without any other candidates, and strong-arm tactics on dissenters to government decisions affecting the running of some of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals.

In short, according to leader writers, the impunity with which this government dismisses highly relevant questions is further indication of the “typical strangulation of democracy under single-party absolute majorities”.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa has done his best to say he thinks the PM was “misunderstood” or “taken out of context”, and certainly did not mean he didn’t want to talk about corruption.

But the damage has been done. Commentators – particularly former Euro MP Ana Gomes – were incensed by the PM’s position because, in truth, it cements a “pattern”.

This is not just one more ‘case’ or ‘little case’ (the PM’s own description of issues that have reverberated around his government). This is the latest in a long line of ‘suspicions of corruption’ in a key sector (defence spending) that is already mined with previous similar issues that have always been “undervalued”, said Ms Gomes on Sunday – citing the condemned corruption in the purchase of multi-million-euro submarines from Germany (the corruption was only condemned in Germany. In Portugal, authorities found no trace of it); the whiff of corruption in the purchase of Pandur armoured vehicles; in the purchase of firefighting helicopters; in the privatisation of the Viana do Castelo shipyards.

All these situations saw thorough investigations, which concluded that no one had really been guilty of anything – even when people involved in them went to parliament (in the case of the shipyards) and described “high corruption”.

On Friday, political commentator Bernardo Ferrão told SIC television news that this particular case (Operation Perfect Storm) “has stunk for a long time”.

“Investigations began in 2018, (and) there is a lot that (in the meantime) has been heard about this Secretary of State, namely the works on the Military Hospital and the slippage on how much it all cost,” he said, describing “a rottenness” within the State institution.

“The question that arises is: how did all this get past the defence minister at the time (João Gomes Cravinho), and how come nothing was understood? Was it that they didn’t want to understand?” Thus, “the country deserves answers”.

Yet, when quizzed on the steps of Monserrate Palace in Sintra on Saturday, the PM, in jeans and a loose open-necked shirt, said the Portuguese were really not that bothered.

His exact words were that he wanted to concentrate “on what matters in the lives of the Portuguese and, without wishing to diminish what worries commentators in the political space, what I feel worries people are quite different issues”.

The PM went on that he “walks in the street and often speaks with the Portuguese” who express concerns about fighting inflation, improving incomes, the challenges in the SNS national health service and the “enormous transformation of the Portuguese economy. It is on what I feel is the fundamental concern that we have to be focused, because the government’s job is to govern, thinking about people”.

This, in itself, was another indication of how far the government has travelled:  the most recent ‘high profile’ examples of ‘Closer Government’ showed the PM and his ministers sweeping past people in the street, refusing to engage on any level.

Justice “should be allowed to work”, the PM told reporters on Saturday – and that was as far as he was prepared to talk about this latest incident.  

If life was a series of isolated incidents, the PM’s explanation may have been accepted. But we return to Ana Gomes’ description of a pattern. The redoubtable campaigner for transparency referred to a recent article in Observador describing how the country’s ‘mechanism against corruption’, or MENAC (as it is known), still has no IT connection, no water or electricity.

In short, the entity cannot begin functions because the long-promised funding of a million euros from Brussels RRP (recovery and resilience programme) isn’t coming through. Yet, according to the Ministry of Justice, everything MENAC needs has already been provided …

Certainly, if “the Portuguese” were not interested in the combat of corruption, this would mean very little, but the latest study by Eurobarometer would suggest that 93% of the population must be concerned by this issue, as they answered a special study conducted in April to say they believe corruption is “common practice” in this country – and they wish it wasn’t.

The answers of “the Portuguese” to the Eurobarometer Special 2023 showed citizens are, in fact, much more concerned about corruption in their country than the average EU citizen.

Thus, the PM’s position is looking more like a tactic than anything based on reality – and this is why criticism has been so overwhelming.

Luís Marques Mendes is at the opposite end of the political scale to Ana Gomes. But he too was shocked by the PM’s words, recalling how Mr Costa saw no reason to subject members of government to the questionnaire formulated in the wake of various ‘cases’ and ‘little cases’ to check their suitability. Had he been more willing to undertake this additional form of security, Marques Mendes suspects the vulnerability of Capitão Ferreira’s situation at the defence ministry might have become clear sooner.

“There could be more suspects” to come, he ventured, stressing that the bottom-line question is the “carelessness with which the prime minister talks of issues of corruption. Yesterday (he was referring to last Saturday), the country saw the prime minister say, ‘ah, ah, this isn’t so important, with all due respect, I walk in the street and people don’t talk about things like this…’

“I think this is a little frightening. I understand the prime minister wanted to devalue this issue, as it concerned the fall of a member of government chosen by him, suspected of corruption (…) but the message the prime minister conveyed in speaking this way was one of undervaluing and downgrading the fight against corruption.

“This was not his intention,” Marques Mendes continued. “But it was what came over.”

And as the seasoned political commentator pointed out, “it is because of things like this, constantly undervaluing, that the ‘monster Sócrates’ came about. All the signs (of corruption) were there, but everyone underestimated them. Everyone was on his side, António Costa, Santos Silva (the current leader of parliament); they were all ministers at the time, and they all undervalued” (the allegations of corruption against former prime minister José Sócrates, that have now limped through the courts for the best part of a decade with very little in the way of enforced convictions).

By Natasha Donn
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