Rui Moreira, mayor of Porto - Image: José Coelho/ Lusa

Decentralisation controversy moves up a notch

Porto – Portugal’s second largest municipality votes today to ‘abandon national association’

The City Council of Porto will be voting today to leave the National Association of Portuguese Municipalities (ANMP).

On the face of it – and in the wider international context of war in Europe – this may sound almost irrelevant. But what it says about the Socialist government’s policy on ‘decentralisation’ (the process of transferring decision-making to local authorities) speaks volumes.

Porto is the country’s second largest city – and the vote today essentially says decentralisation as the government has decreed it sucks.

According to television commentator Luís Marques Mendes, the position is totally understandable. 

In his regular Sunday slot on SIC, Marques Mendes commended Porto mayor Rui Moreira (an independent who has managed to hold onto his mandate in spite of numerous efforts to unseat him) for his courage.

The government’s idea of ‘decentralisation’ is purely ‘windowdressing’, explained Marques Mendes. A kind of “decentralisation façade”.

He gave examples: the plan transfer the running of health centres to local authorities. “All well and good… But in such simple things as changing the opening hours, for instance, they have no power… they cannot add specialities to what health centres offer, not even if they pay for them themselves! Is this decentralisation? Of course it isn’t!” 

Another example: education. (The plan) “transfers the running of schools. Very good. But can the municipalities change the curriculum? No. Can they have some intervention over the hiring of teachers? No. Hours of operation: can municipalities change these? No… In other words, by transferring ‘competences to municipalities’ all this policy means is that municipalities are functioning as contractors. This is not real decentralisation”.

In Marques Mendes’ opinion the whole policy requires debate – and Rui Moreira has been the only mayor tenacious enough to demand it.

Says SIC, today’s vote will mean the municipality seeks to continue the battle for ‘real decentralisation’ as an independent entity, “without any representation” by ANMP, which it clearly does not believe is acting in municipalities’ best interests.

Rui Moreira has said that the way he sees the situation: “The ANMP has made deals with the government without hearing municipalities, and without being mandated to do this, ignoring their legitimate interests and concerns”.

As it stands, the government’s model for decentralisation “is manifestly below what was hoped for”, he says.

ANMP’s president Luísa Salgueiro has appealed to the association’s 300-odd mayors to ‘not lose confidence’, or rally to Rui Moreira’s cause. But divisions already exist.

The whole process has been developing painfully since 2019, with Rui Moreira already having pushed through with a judicial embargo to try to stymie plans in health and education.

Today’s vote will simply shake matters up further; no one can be sure towards what kind of result.

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