Economy minister forced to resign after gaffe in parliament

by Chris Graeme

Colourful and controversial Minister for the Economy and Innovation, Manuel Pinho, was forced to resign on Thursday after making a rude gesture at an opposition politician in parliament.

The minister, known for his political gaffes, chose the worst possible moment to make the Devil’s Horns sign to Communist Party Deputy (PCP) Bernardino Soares in the middle of a parliamentary debate on the State of the Nation, one of the most important debates in the parliamentary calendar, which takes place annually in July before the parliamentary summer recess.

He made the rude gesture under the glare of the media spotlight in retaliation to barbed comments from the Communist Party leader over the minister’s handling of the Aljustrel Copper Mine Affair.

Making the sign of the Devil’s Horns with two fingers is extremely insulting in Portugal.

In Latin countries like Portugal, it holds the connotation that the person being insulted is being cuckolded by another man having an affair with his wife. 

It was particularly embarrassing for the Prime Minister, José Sócrates, who is facing a General Election in the autumn and was defending his government’s record after a particularly difficult mandate of four-and-a-half years. The Prime Minister immediately offered a formal apology for what he called an “inexcusable act”. 

This latest political embarrassment adds further fuel to arguments from political and media commentators who say that Portugal’s ruling class is discredited and mediocre and has lost the general public’s respect at a time when Portugal is in the grip of its worst economic crisis since 1974 with soaring unemployment nearing 10 per cent, several fraud scandals involving the banking sector and persistent unproven allegations that the Prime Minister condoned or received backhanders in the Freeport Case when Minister of the Environment.

The government has also been defending its controversial job-boosting policy of spending billions of euros on costly public works projects including a new Lisbon International Airport, the TGV high-speed rail link between Porto and Lisbon and Madrid and Lisbon, and upgrading several roads to motorway status in the north of the country.

Despite apologising profusely before parliamentary deputies and the media, the Prime Minister was left wandering the corridors surrounding the main parliamentary chamber, as political support evaporated and pictures of Manuel Pinho were played and replayed on TV and radio networks, YouTube and blogs as well as appearing prominently in media sources and newspapers around the world including the BBC and Le Figaro.

“I overstepped the mark, I’m immensely sorry,” Manuel Pinho said at around 6.30pm before news filtered out that he had been replaced by the current Finance Minister, Fernando Teixeira dos Santos.

In his four-and-a-half years as Minister of the Economy and Innovation, Manuel Pinho, 54, has enjoyed mixed results in attracting Direct Foreign Investment to Portugal and technologically modernising the economy.

He famously declared the end of the financial crisis on October 13 2006 by saying “I think the crisis has totally ended” when it was in fact just beginning.