With political divisions in Portugal’s oldest ally as rabid as they were during the height of the Brexit debate, Portuguese politicians have shown how it is possible for political opponents to work together and emerge from the morass of crisis without too much drama.
On Friday, prime minister António Costa called it “perfect harmony”.
In a speech during a visit to Ovar – a borough blighted by the virus to the point that it had to be isolated for weeks -Mr Costa stressed “there is something that this country should be very proud of, and that’s that independent of political functions that each of us exercise, and the political forces that each represent, the Portuguese political system has been exemplary in the way it faced this crisis”.
Accompanying the prime minister was President of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa as well as leader of the Opposition, Rui Rio – both of whom have never faltered in their support for the efforts of the minority government as it grappled to take control of the spread of Portugal’s outbreak.
This ‘perfect harmony’ allowed the country to “respond at the right time to everything that was necessary”, said Mr Costa.
There was no political posturing or unnecessary theatre: the country simply knuckled down and worked together.
“From the Assembly of the Republic (parliament) where no one holds a majority, to the President of the Republic from one political family, the government of another political family, mayors of all political families and regional governments of diverse political families, the truth is that each one, maintaining their political colours, their opinions and positions, knew how to work together”, said the PM.
This ‘climate of unity’ is “very important” and a factor that differentiates Portugal from the “international context”.
The ‘unsaid’ in this short comparison spoke volumes. A look at the political mayhem unleashed recently in the UK over a government advisor breaking lockdown shows just how ‘bad’ things can get in countries where the political landscape is devoid of harmony.
Focused on rebuilding the economy, the prime minister neatly followed his reference to the international context with the message that “any companies that want to relocate to Europe” will be “very well placed in Portugal”.
It’s the message Portugal has been giving since the start of the Brexit debate, and one that has been amplified during this crisis in which the country has received frequent international praise (click here and here and here).
The PM concluded that he was also very proud of the statements that he has seen in the press made by his political rival, Rui Rio, and even the PSD mayor of Ovar Salvador Malheiro.
It was, as almost every political outing has been for weeks, another successful exercise in PR – coming at just the moment that foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva has been assuring journalists that Portugal is ready and ‘sorted’ to receive foreign tourists for the summer.
Covid-19 has changed so much of the landscape that few are aware that the country is approaching presidential elections (in January 2021). But of those who are, there is another political rarity at work: both main parties are supporting the same man!
Portugal’s ‘president of affections’ (as he’s called) President Marcelo has still not actually said that he’s ready to stand for a second term. Whenever quizzed he says the Portuguese have far more important things to worry about – “life, health, employment, income and salaries” for a start.
The image of a masked Marcelo, standing in a supermarket queue with a modest trolley of intended purchases, has coincidentally reinforced his popularity – both here and abroad – in the last week, with Spain’s El Pais affirming there is no one in Portugal more popular than its president. This in itself is a refreshing ‘change’ to figures considered ‘popular’ in other countries.
Marcelo is a politician who likes to hug people, talk with everyone and get people to agree, says El Pais.
His first presidential campaign was “the cheapest of all”: his entire team fitted into one car that was “frequently driven by one of his children”.
Often dubbed ‘the father of the PSD’, Marcelo’s way of dealing with opponents has won over both the prime minister, the foreign affairs minister and the leader of Assembly of the Republic – all of them PS Socialists.
As tabloid Correio da Manhã suggests, it’s extremely unlikely that the PSD would think of fielding another candidate if Marcelo decides to stand for a second term, even if they’re not totally happy with the fact that he has become so ‘chummy’ with the left.
Rare as this situation is, it’s not unprecedented, however. Back in 1991, legendary Socialist Mário Soares clinched a second presidential mandate with the support of the then PSD prime minister Cavaco Silva – who himself went on to serve two terms as president from March 2006.
Yes, there have been – and continue to be – ‘rumblings of discontent’. Former Euro MP Ana Gomes for instance was ‘shocked’ to hear the prime minister openly come out and declared his support for Marcelo before the presidential race had even started, saying she would now have to think seriously about whether she herself should stand. But as time has moved on, Ms Gomes has said she’s still not ready to make a decision – and as El Pais has stressed: “There is no one more popular in Portugal than its president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa”.