Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. Image: Pedro Sarmento Costa/ Lusa
Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo. Image: Pedro Sarmento Costa/ Lusa

“Democracy is not inevitable”, says defence chief Gouveia e Melo

If it fails, new generation of autocrats will take reins of power

At a time of heightened political dissatisfaction – and some would say deterioration – Portugal’s chief of defence staff, Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, has warned that democracy is not inevitable, and must be defended and nurtured.

Speaking at a conference in Porto de Mós, Leiria, yesterday, as part of a cycle of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Portugal’s own democracy (celebrated on April 25), he described a world “divided between autocracies and democracies”.

“If democracies fail to present convincing arguments about the importance of political freedoms or if citizens become disillusioned with the way they are governed, a new generation of autocrats will be very willing to step in and take the reins of power”, he warned. And “if they succeed, the world will become more violent, corrupt and dangerous to live in”.

Says Lusa, in the speech where he spoke about the end of the Cold War, Gouveia e Melo pointed out that “the destructuring of ideological systems of reference, some negative effects of globalisation and a disastrous set of international policies have revived dormant nationalisms and identity and religious extremisms fracturing international society.

“Democratic governments may not be more wedded to peace than autocracies, but it is well established that democracies rarely go to war with each other,” he said.

Addressing the geopolitical and geostrategic framework, the resurgence of autocracies and the challenges of democracies, the admiral described how the “advance of autocratic regimes has generated concerns about the weakening of democratic institutions, the erosion of civil rights and the threat to press freedom”.

In a “reflection of the changing balance of financial power, autocracies are increasingly funding democracies”, he went on, “which is worrying, with Western economies dependent on capital flows from the Chinese and Persian Gulf economies”.

In the context of the challenges of international cooperation, “the rivalry between democracies and autocracies presents significant challenges”, as “in an increasingly polarised world, collaboration on global issues has become more difficult and nations are increasingly reluctant to work together in areas such as trade, security and the environment”.

The man who became a national hero during the Covid vaccination campaign, described how the “Russian invasion of Ukraine produced the greatest unity and urgency among democracies in the last 40 years” (…) “western democracies have united around common values” such as freedom of expression, the protection of human rights and the defence of democratic rule.

But “autocratic nations like Russia and China have positioned themselves as alternatives to the Western democratic model, offering their own, revisionist vision of political and economic development” (…) Portugal, as a nation state, small and limited in its relative power in the concert of nations, should take into consideration, in formulating its policies, that the world is not and does not seem to be moving towards global peace” and that “no international legal system, ‘per se’, will fully protect Portuguese interests.”

Portugal will not be free from being dragged, in view of the coalitions it belongs to, the position and space it occupies geographically and its interests, to a more central and heated zone of the conflict” between the two blocs, he continued.

Admiral Gouveia e Melo is increasingly tipped as a successor to the presidency when current President Marcelo steps down at the end of his second mandate in 2026.

Back in November last year, a poll conducted for Expresso, showed that the majority of Portuguese thought he would be a very good president.

Since then, there has been the ‘Mondego mutiny’ – in which his stance was seen as overly autocratic – but the fact that he is not a former politician could elevate him considerably in the public’s eyes.

Writing in Correio da Manhã today, deputy editorial director general Eduardo Dâmaso runs through the issues damaging national politics today, suggesting they are not in the end the biggest problem for the country’s leaders.

In his opinion, their biggest problem is the growth of right-wing party CHEGA “and an admiral who could also end up in Belém”.

[email protected]