President Marcelo
President Marcelo has spent years trying to ensure Portugal's political stability. This week is really proving a challenge. Image: Tiago Petinga/ Lusa

Day 3 of political crisis: “nothing looks good”

Over €75,000 in cash discovered in office of PM’s chief of staff

Portugal is in Day 3 of its political crisis, and nothing is looking ‘good’. SIC Notícias is reporting this morning that searches of the office of António Costa’s chief of staff (one of those arrested in the judicial swoop on Tuesday) revealed over €75,000 in cash, while the number of phone calls flagged in the inquiry over the PM’s possible ‘influencing of business’ is more substantial than originally thought.

“There exist more than 20 recordings of telephone conversations which connect António Costa with the facts under investigation”, says the media channel.

As to the name of this investigation that has effectively torpedoed an absolute majority government, it is Operation Influencer.

The five men who have been behind bars following their arrests on suspicion of the trafficking of influences, passive and active corruption and ‘prevarication’ (a crime practised by public servants with the intention of benefiting or prejudicing others), are due to start making statements before a judge of criminal instruction today – a process that is expected to take some days yet.

At the same time, according to SIC, “more details on the investigation that led to the resignation of the prime minister are becoming known.

“SIC knows that €75,800 in cash was found in the office of (the PM’s chief of staff) Vítor Escária”. This office is in the prime minister’s official residence of São Bento.

“There are also more than 20 telephone recordings that link António Costa to the facts under investigation” – these facts relating to contracts for lithium exploration in Montalegre and Boticas; a project for the production of green hydrogen in Sines, and a plan for a massive ‘green data centre’, also in Sines.

Yesterday, President Marcelo heard all the political parties in parliament on what they believe should be the way forwards. He had meetings with the PS after having heard the opposition parties.

Today is the moment for the Council of State in which Marcelo’s ‘advisers’ – some much closer to the president than others – will give their views on the situation.

Público is reporting that the PS “will do anything to avoid early elections”. There is even talk of a ‘caretaker prime minister’ being drafted in from PS hierarchy – even the name of former finance minister Mário Centeno has been touted, currently the Governor of the Bank of Portugal.

For political watchers, today will be another ‘helter skelter’ of listening, reporting, analysing, and ultimately waiting for the president to tell the country what is happening next.

Big questions include the State Budget for 2024, due to be passed (by the absolute majority) on November 29.

Many are saying the budget should be allowed to pass. This would ensure a number of large projects with EU funding; a number of PS plans for the future – but it is also a budget that no other political party has said it will be voting for, with measures, like the increasing of road fund tax for old vehicles, that have prompted widespread protests throughout the country. Citizens groups/ political parties have all said they want more done to tackle the housing crisis; a lot more done to meet teachers’ demands for money effectively stolen during the crisis years; and more to be done to satisfy overworked health professionals and stop them leaving the imploding national health service.

With all this swirling in the maelstrom, news has come of a ‘new official suspect’ in Operation Influencer: João Tiago Silveira, a former (PS) Secretary of State for the Presidency of the Council of Ministers and former Secretary of State for Justice under José Sócrates. Mr Silveira has pronounced himself ‘stupified’ by the situation, preferring not to comment further as he awaits “to be confronted by the concrete facts”.

SIC’s early morning analysis of the picture so far stresses that although little is known about the investigation into António Costa himself – and how he may have facilitated business – “the signal is not good”.

Observador’s political editor Rui Pedro Antunes has been talked to SIC, explaining that among the recorded telephone conversations there is one in which the PM says to the then minister of environment who was ostensibly trying to talk about matters related to lithium exploration: “I have already told you, we will talk about this later!”

According to Observador: “António Costa’s reaction is seen by investigators as an attempt to avoid talking on the phone about this type of matter, and there is a suspicion that the prime minister knew he was being listened to”.

Thus today has a lot of people on the edge of their seats, not least the interest of everyday citizens who simply want to understand what has been going on in a government that has had the whip-hand since February 2022 and been mired in scandal and controversy ever since. 

Suspense is expected to continue well into the early evening. The country may not even hear from the president until the 8pm evening news. The only ‘certainty’ is that Marcelo has some enormous decisions to make today, and millions of people are watching. ND