Prime Minister António Costa announcing on Tuesday night that he refused to accept the infrastructure minister’s resignation
Prime Minister António Costa announcing on Tuesday night that he refused to accept the infrastructure minister’s resignation Photo: TIAGO PETINGA/LUSA

Political meltdown: PM refuses calls to remodel government

Prime Minister clashes with President following latest TAP-related PR disaster

After days of extraordinary revelations – prompted by the parliamentary inquiry into exactly what is going on at State-controlled airline TAP – infrastructure minister João Galamba announced his resignation on Tuesday evening, shortly after the start of primetime news bulletins. With political focus minutely on Galamba’s fragility following a bizarre ‘punch-up’ at his ministry days before, the prime minister’s office then announced that the PM would be making an announcement at 8.45pm.

Everyone believed this would be the start of yet another government reshuffle. But no. Prime minister António Costa came down the steps of São Bento and said he “refused to accept” Mr Galamba’s resignation.

The PM talked of following his conscience and believing in his minister.

Even as Mr Costa remained on those steps, the office of President Marcelo in Belém posted a statement online, saying Portugal’s head of State “disagrees with the position” taken.

“The President of the Republic, who cannot dismiss a member of government without this being proposed by the prime minister, disagrees with the latter’s position with regard to the political reading of the facts, and the resulting perception by the Portuguese regarding the prestige of the institutions that govern them.”

And that last part is key: the perception of the prestige of institutions that govern this country lies in the gutter under discarded orange peel.

A “pattern of lying” has become the order of the day, Mariana Mortágua – soon-to-be coordinator of the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda) – considered in her regular commentary slot on SIC Notícias late on Tuesday night. “The country is in a swamp,” she insisted – ‘swamp’ being the word used in Portugal for when political matters appear to have spiralled beyond redemption.

Other instant reactions to the PM’s decision were that “open war is now installed between António Costa and President Marcelo”. The two are locked in a chess game “from which there is no possible winner, only losers: all of us, Portuguese, caught in an unexpected duel”, writes Correio da Manhã’s editorial director general Carlos Rodrigues.

Health, education, justice, housing – all these areas are in different shades of crisis – yet focus remains on political squabbles in Lisbon.

The official spokesperson for PAN, one of the smallest parties (in terms of representation in parliament), said: “We are witnessing a government that is hostage to itself and its absolute majority,” while left wingers (PCP and Bloco de Esquerda) have lamented the ‘wasting of time that the country doesn’t have’ to tackle real issues that hold the country, and its citizens, back.

So, what next? This new level of confrontation involves ‘who is going to blink first’: “Marcelo can dissolve parliament and call early elections,” say pundits. But this will be a risk: yes, polls suggest the centre-right has the lead over PS Socialists, but polls are fallible – and this is the crucial year in which Marcelo has said everything has to be done to make the most of finite funds offered by Brussels for pandemic recovery and resilience – funds that are already ‘delayed’ in their arrival as politicians have essentially been ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.

Staring a long, drought-beset summer in the face, there have been no contingency measures announced to conserve water; there has been no aid package presented for farmers at their wits’ ends, unable to feed animals or make ends meet; there is no end in sight to conflicts within the public sector; queues at health centres increase; millions are waiting for surgeries and consultations; schools are staggering, in some cases pupils have occupied buildings calling for more attention to the ‘climate emergency’, and public debt is growing by €74 million per day.

On the face of it, there is very little that would encourage citizens to vote PS Socialists back in, but can Marcelo risk pressing the button on what is known in Lisbon circles as ‘the atomic bomb’ – the dissolution of parliament? This is the impossible question.

What seems more likely, say commentators, is that the president will hold the PM’s feet to the proverbial fire until the European elections in 2024, and then ‘reconsider’ his options.

Meantime, the ‘rot’ in government (as described by PSD leader Luís Montenegro) is not likely to go away. Indeed, commentators have stressed that yet another reshuffle may have been impossible anyway, as there are very few people who would risk their reputations to enter a government in such a state of shambles.

 Why did Galamba offer his resignation?

This is where the “pattern of lying” described by Mariana Mortágua becomes so confused that it is almost not worth trying to fathom.

Essentially, Mr Galamba’s truth has been ‘called out’ in the parliamentary inquiry into the management of State-owned airline TAP – and his sacking of a deputy is shrouded in suspicion: was the deputy really going rogue, or was Galamba simply trying to get rid of him before he presented his truth to the inquiry, and showed Galamba up to be a liar?

Suffice it to say, the deputy was challenged when he went into the ministry to pick up his computer (it apparently belonged to the government and contained ‘classified information’); a scuffle ensued in which various aides ended up barricaded in the ministry’s lavatories, with bruised noses; police were called; SIS, the country’s secret services were called – and the deputy rode home on a bicycle (having made his escape by throwing the bicycle at a plate glass window).

None of this makes sense. The PM has called the incident “deplorable”. No-one is admitting to having called in the Secret Services (to remove a computer from a young man on a bicycle) – but everyone is saying that Secret Services “should not be used” for situations of this calibre.

Around the time these shenanigans were playing out, PSD leader Luís Montenegro was saying: “The country has become impoverished and the government is rotting.” Since then, he has been reported to be putting together a new government with political heavyweights like former prime ministers Pedro Passos Coelho and Durão Barroso – even former president Cavaco Silva – advising him.

This crisis has a long way left to run.

By Natasha Donn
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