The government of prime minister António Costa is being criticised for not wanting to listen to opposing
The government of prime minister António Costa is being criticised for not wanting to listen to opposing Photo: ANTÓNIO COTRIM/LUSA

Government accused of arrogance over housing reforms

Portugal’s Socialist government vows to push through housing reforms in spite of presidential veto

 When PS Socialists were voted back to power in 2019 with an absolute majority, prime minister António Costa gave a victory speech in which he said the government would always ‘listen’ to opposing views; that an absolute majority did not mean absolute power. But since then, there has been almost no sign that the government is listening to anyone outside its sphere.

This week has somehow sealed this reality: the country’s Head of State has written at length as to why he is sending the PS housing reforms back to parliament for a second attempt at creating relevant legislation, and the government’s response has been that it will be approving the text, exactly as it is, and sending it back for promulgation.

As Marcelo’s long explanation for his ‘veto’ admitted: “I know – and we all know – that the absolute majority in parliament can repeat, in a few weeks’ time, the approval just voted”, but that knowledge should not be the basis for giving up on what, in Marcelo’s words, is an “expression of a profound negative conviction and serene analytical judgment”.

The diploma, in essence, has “polarised debate”, “radicalised positions in parliament without offering any workable solutions to the housing crisis”, or to the “suffocation of families”, he explains.

The country’s head of State also referred in his text outlining the veto that the diploma “makes it difficult to recover anything lost on the part of private investment” – which has delivered a broadside in clauses relating to ‘vacant habitable properties’ (which theoretically can be ‘seized’ by the State to be put onto the rentals market), and AL ‘short term rentals’ (which have now become a bureaucratic minefield).

But still the government refuses to reopen the field to further discussions.

Quizzed on this reaction, President Marcelo considered “this is democracy in action”: as head of State, he is duty bound to sound warnings when he feels they are due, but the government is not bound by those warnings. It can ‘carry on regardless’, and continue on its political path, in spite of all the protests. But where will this lead? Perhaps this is what President Marcelo really means when he talks of democracy in action:

Within hours of the government’s intentions being clear, right-wing party CHEGA said that it would now be focused on “gathering support of the other parties (in parliament) to submit the diploma to the Constitutional Court for inspection.

“CHEGA welcomes the veto of the ‘Mais Habitação programme’ and is perplexed that the PS are preparing, unilaterally and in an arrogant way, to confirm the diploma in the Republican Assembly (Portugal’s parliament)”, said party leader André Ventura.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa believes the diploma does not offer any workable solutions to the housing crisis - Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa believes the diploma does not offer any workable solutions to the housing crisis – Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

In CHEGA’s opinion, the proposed legislation “gravely violates Portuguese Law and the Constitution”.

Of a similar opinion is the Association of Lisbon Property Owners – led by the recently retired head of the Law Society (Ordem dos Advogados) Luís Menezes Leitão (who should know what he is talking about).

If there are constitutional issues, it is unclear why President Marcelo himself did not refer the diploma to the Constitutional Court. It could be that he is playing ‘the long game’ – giving the government all the rope it needs to display how undemocratic politics in Portugal has become.

Certainly, the lobbies are strengthening: with Lisbon property owners preparing for a legal challenge, ALEP – the Association of Alojamento Local in Portugal has said it is prepared to take the diploma to the European Tribunal. “This is a decision that is based not only on the legal legitimacy that is presented in this law, but also on the democratic legitimacy of a government and parliamentary group that abuses an absolute majority, disrespecting the will of society which has already demonstrated its disagreement with this law. An absolute majority cannot, in a democracy, be synonymous with absolute power”, said ALEP in a statement.

The Association of Hostels in Portugal (ADHP) agrees – suggesting the attitude of the government appears as “a very bad sign for the democratic system”.

If the PS “continues to ignore the generalised criticism of these measures, including from militants within the party itself, abusing the absolute majority and voting discipline, to force an accelerated and ill-considered promotion of the diploma”, AHDP believes an opportunity will have been wasted.

On Tuesday, popular papers were full of pictures of the prime minister waist deep in water “ignoring Marcelo” and getting on with his holiday in the Algarve, while leader of the Opposition Luís Montenegro was fully dressed and rallying support for a ‘complete rethink’.

Anyone who wants to legislate in favour of the people would start from scratch, he told a rally in Bragança – and if the prime minister has the humility to admit that he “made a mistake”, Luís Montenegro is ready to place “all the know-how that the PSD possesses (in the sphere of housing) to the service of Portugal”.

Again, a message calling for constructive democratic debate…

With all the other parties ‘grumbling’ – PCP communists believe the diploma ‘favours property speculation’; Bloco de Esquerda that it shows PS “arrogance and indifference to the greatest drama of our times” (people’s inability to find affordable housing); Iniciativa Liberal that it is frightening investment, and driving prices up further and PAN that it requires more dialogue – the essence of reactions is that PS Socialists are not being democratic in any way, shape or form. Opposition to this diploma comes from all political colours, and many sides within society.

Thus, one could almost hold sympathy for the only member of government still apparently in a suit in the middle of August – parliamentary leader Eurico Brilhante Dias – tasked with the words: “We respect the political disagreement of the president of the republic but reaffirm the urgency in responding to the housing crisis. For this, we will confirm the diploma in the Assembly of the Republic, under the terms of the Constitution.”

This is likely to come ‘before October’, say reports – but it is also likely to see a lot more in the way of complaints about the quality of democracy in Portugal – which may be exactly what President Marcelo is hoping for.

By Natasha Donn
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