The country awaits desperately needed decisions from PM António Costa
The country awaits desperately needed decisions from PM António Costa Photo: PAULO CUNHA/LUSA

Portugal’s absolute majority wades through political mud

PM launches into damage limitation; manages to keep smiling, but…

Somehow this week, politics in Portugal has scaled new heights. The ‘absolute majority’ government seems bogged down. It has reached the stage that the prime minister resorted to ‘an interview’ on primetime television on Monday to insist “there are no tricks in pensions”, when every single political commentator has already minutely explained how the tricks have been “so cleverly devised”.

The country, which has been repeatedly told there is nothing more important than a decision on a new airport and on a new health service statute, has now heard that all these things can wait…

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is in Angola – so that takes preference over any decisions on the country’s drowning health service – while the airport decision is so confused that Mr Costa has smiled broadly and said it will be left until next year.

If only he could remember the “urgency” he described back in 2018. Admittedly, the world has changed dramatically since then – but not when it comes to the PM’s executive reaching desperately needed decisions.

Environment minister Duarte Cordeiro was scheduled to outline energy-saving measures last Thursday, only to announce that the announcement would “come shortly but not now”; Mr Costa pledged measures to help businesses through the energy crisis well over a week ago – and since then, nothing…

Industry, meantime, is crying out for solutions (some sectors having seen energy costs leap 10-fold). There are warnings that production will be affected; jobs lost. But what does the prime minister do? Go on television to say “there are no tricks in pensions”.

Opposition PSD leader Luís Montenegro, meantime, is ‘out for blood’. A polar-opposite to his predecessor in terms of proactivity, the 49-year-old has launched into a tour of the country, borough by borough, to take place for one week of every month, and has started making daily declarations decrying government “disarray” (and social insensitivity) which are gaining media traction.

On the right, André Ventura, leader of the country’s reviled third political force CHEGA, is equally focused on showing the Socialist executive up for its “absolute failings”.

And on Wednesday, as the dust settled on the prime minister’s platitudes given to TVI/CNN, the country’s ‘best read tabloid’ carried a headline explaining that public sector workers’ salaries will have lost 14% in terms of ‘purchasing power’ since the troika years (i.e., since PS Socialists have been returned to power).

In a week where the nation’s schools begin the new academic year after the best part of three months on holiday – with 60,000 pupils missing a full complement of teachers, it is little wonder that strikes are being threatened and ‘liability waivers’ requested by exhausted workers within the health service.

This leads neatly into the fundamental changes promised for the SNS health service, which has finally seen a replacement minister appointed (to take over from the one who resigned after the untimely death of a young pregnant woman). It has also seen the announcement of the name of a new ‘saviour’.

Current (popular and laudably competent) director of Porto’s São João Hospital Fernando Araújo is to be the CEO of the newly-devised top tier of health service management (the SNS executive that cannot be officially formed until President Marcelo promulgates the diploma approving it on his return from Angola).

In interview on Monday, the prime minister stressed that “Lisbon has a lot to learn from Porto” in terms of hospital management, and the functioning of A&E departments.

It was a statement that suggested the enormous problems suffered within the country’s health service are somehow concentrated in Lisbon – when in truth they are everywhere, hence the reason that over 6,500 health professionals have requested liability waivers.

So, what have the first signs from Dr Araújo been? He maintains the health service needs a new strategy for the future; one that centres on disease preventions.

Bearing in mind it can take several months to be given a date for a specialist consultation in the health service – and even longer for people who need operations – it is chilling that it has required a new broom to reach this conclusion.

But back to the PM’s ‘damage limitation’ exercise. What else did he say? Here is a taster, provided by Expresso:

“It’s probable that there will be” support for people with mortgages. “There are various measures possible, and the government is accompanying the situation and in dialogue with the banks. One of the possibilities that pleases the head of government is for agreements to be possible between the bank and its mortgage customers along the same lines as what happened during the pandemic.”

As for inflation, the chief of government says he is working on a forecast of closing the year with 7.4%. Questioned on whether public sector workers will have an increase of this order, he quickly responded: “They will certainly not be increased by 7.4%”.

And on the topic of a windfall tax on big business – so that extraordinary profits could be ploughed into supporting the least fortunate in society, Mr Costa answered: “We haven’t excluded it, we haven’t decided.”

Something of a master in the use of unnecessary words, Mr Costa told his interviewers: “We are analysing the situation; if it justifies, there will be measures, if it does not justify, there will not be measures.”

In other words, the way forward is as clear as the thick sludge that flooded villages as a result of Storm Danielle’s downpours over Serra da Estrela this week. Authorities had warned of the folly of leaving burnt detritus in the hills following the summer fires (only recently extinguished). But their warnings went unheeded – and now thousands of euros has to be found to repair the damage.

By NATASHA DONN

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com