Prime minister António Costa
Prime minister António Costa, moving on from the TAP scandal Photo: PAULO NOVAIS/LUSA

Government stability hits rocks

Christmas and the New Year in Portugal were marked by bitter political in-fighting which saw three more Socialist members of government ‘shown the door’; calls by opposition parties for the dissolution of parliament; the scheduling of an emergency debate – and a lacklustre government reshuffle.

Coming so quickly after an interview the prime minister gave, essentially telling his opponents “get used to it, my government is here for another four years”, the situation shows how quickly things can change.

As it is, the PM is doing everything he can to move on. As parliament prepared yesterday for the urgent debate on the political situation and crisis in government, he was busying himself elsewhere. He deputised his presence for the debate and knows that today’s ‘motion of censure’ of his government, requested by Iniciativa Liberal – but largely unsupported by other parties in opposition – will fall by the wayside.

Mr Costa’s focus now is on “achieving things” – namely trying to put the wind up the spending of Brussels’ ‘bazooka’ and other development funding before it runs out.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa particularly is on his tail on this score, unimpressed at the government’s energy at handling the process.

Everything has been done to draw a line under the TAP ‘scandal’ that rocked any semblance of stability – in a government that has already lost 11 members since forming nine months ago – just as the PM recorded a bland Christmas message beside a discreetly decorated tree, seemingly attempting to paint Portugal as a land of peace, solidarity and confidence.

The problem is that people’s confidence in Mr Costa’s government is now running thin.

For all PS attempts to contain the fall-out from the TAP ‘scandal’, it just keeps coming.

For those who missed the start, it centres on Alexandra Reis, a former director of TAP, appointed by the government to oversee the trimming down of the company, falling out with TAP’s CEO and being ‘compensated’ for this failure with a golden handshake of €500,000.

That a State-supported company buoyed up by €3.2 billion in taxpayers money can afford to dish out such hefty compensations is one issue, but how government paymasters could possibly have allowed it is another.

It transpires that no-one knew about the payment. That, at least, was the story … and this somehow made the situation even worse: how can sums like half-a-million euros be paid out of State-owned companies with no-one knowing, questioned journalists.

And not only did Ms Reis go on to be offered another plum government posting, running NAV (the national air traffic control company), she was then whisked into government as Secretary of State for the Treasury.

Her immediate boss, finance minister Fernando Medina, claims he knew nothing of her massive compensation payment from TAP, nor really of why she left the company mid-way through her mandate.

The whole story smacked so much of ‘jobs for the boys and girls come what may’/ ‘let’s all keep this in the family and close ranks’, that opposition parties erupted.

Iniciativa Liberal, which has called for the censure motion, described Mr Costa’s executive as one that “has shown growing arrogance” over the last nine months, “thinking it owns absolute power” when, in fact, fomenting a “generalised climate of incompetence and irresponsibility”.

Ms Reis has been quickly bundled out the door (having never really shown her face, but given a statement saying “everything was legal”) and with her went the government minister (of infrastructure and housing) in charge of TAP, Pedro Nuno Santos, and his Secretary of State, Hugo Mendes  – who appears to have been the only person in government prepared to say he did, in fact, know Ms Reis had received half a million euros for not getting on with TAP CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener, but he hadn’t seen the necessity to tell his superior.

As all this played out against the season of goodwill, President Marcelo was preparing to leave the country for Brazil to attend the inauguration of President Lula da Silva. He left the country insisting that he was not prepared to call elections as this would do nothing for the stability the country needs to face a year full of challenges, nationally and internationally.

The government has to govern, and govern better, he said.

Mr Costa was left with the job of reshuffling his executive, to find a new minister to replace Pedro Nuno Santos, and two new secretaries of State.

On January 2, Mr Costa made his announcement. He had decided to split the ministry previously overseen by Mr Nuno Santos into two: Infrastructure is now under the leadership of former secretary of State for Energy João Galamba; Housing is now the responsibility of Marina Gonçalves, at 34 the youngest minister in the history of Portuguese democracy.

Have these choices helped return a semblance of calm? Not really.

The minute the appointments were announced, political analysts were accusing the PM of “thinking more of his own future than that of the country” – the reason being Mr Galamba is seen very much as ‘damaged goods’: he is under investigation for suspicions of cronyism within the party on two counts (lithium exploration and a mega-project for green hydrogen in Sines); he is notorious for tweets that at best lack diplomacy, and he is believed to have been close enough to disgraced former prime minister José Sócrates that he actually warned him by text of ‘something being up’ before Mr Sócrates was famously arrested and the held in prison for months for alleged corruption and money-laundering.

Why would António Costa have chosen João Galamba? Because the 47-year-old is apparently a close ally of Pedro Nuno Santos [now outside the government fold, but a) not happy with the situation, and b) a long-touted contender for Mr Costa’s top job]. As such, commentators see the appointment as a way of ‘keeping enemies closer’.

As for Marina Gonçalves, she too is a close associate of Pedro Nuno Santos – and has no experience outside the PS party. That has seen critics question her ability, at such a young age, to run ‘Housing’ – a dossier that has largely been ignored for decades.

All in all, the festive period was a political morass – which the PS party insists is now behind us.

But is it? TAP syndicates say CEO Christine Ourmières-Widener is behind this whole disaster and “must go”. The airline is still at the mercy of planned strikes – and on Wednesday Expresso explained that “by law” TAP is not at liberty to hand out ‘indemnities’ of the size lavished on Alexandra Reis. This is why the airline described the payment to the Market Securities Commission as “a compensation”, says the paper.

Whatever the legal niceties, these are now being investigated by the Public Ministry as the country packs away its tinsel and Christmas decorations and wonders “whatever next?” (see note below)

By Natasha Donn
[email protected]

Since the uploading of this text, the question “whatever next?” has been answered with further inconvenient details on one of the new Secretaries of State sworn in to office less than 24-hours ago (see story on main menu)