President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa

President gives sixth New Year address amid political controversy

“Political stability” depends solely on government

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa gave his habitual New Year’s message after a week of bitter political turmoil marked by three (further) resignations in the Socialist Party’s absolute majority government.

It was the sixth time Portugal’s head of State has addressed the country since he was elected in 2016 with a pre-recorded message (he was in Brazil over New Year for the inauguration of President Lula da Silva). And he used it to draw yet another line in the sand with the government.

Without alluding to the TAP ‘golden handshake scandal’ that has prompted calls for the dissolution of parliament, the 74-year-old president said essentially that Portugal’s future depends on the government; “only the executive itself can weaken or deflate governative stability”.

The ‘deflating of political stability’ that results from an absolute majority, “rare in Europe and the democratic world” – and which demands “absolute responsibility” – can occur as a result of “organic errors, lack of coordination, internal fragmentation, inaction, lack of transparency or a disconnection with reality”.

As pundits have since agreed, all these possibile scenarios have already made themselves felt.

Thus this is the government’s (for that read prime minister’s) latest warning

The crux of the presidential address referred to the opportunities in 2023 for Portugal, in the form of European community funding.

“It would be unpardonable” if the country let the ball drop on the billions of euros (almost 11 billion) available, on strict time-limits – so strict in fact that investment in projects under Portugal 2020 (still with €3.5 billion euros left to run) have to start taking place at a rate of around one billion euros per month if the money is not to be ‘lost’, said television commentator Luís Marques Mendes in his regular slot on SIC television last night. 

For Marcelo, 2023 will be ‘decisive’, because if the country wastes all the opportunities currently at its disposal, there will be nothing like them coming in 2024, 2025 or 2026 – the year when this absolute majority government would technically come to its end.

A wasted 2023 will also “compromise all the following years” because it is the only year up until 2026 when there are not national elections of some form or other (European elections in 2024, municipal in 2025 and legislative in 2026).

Thus, with a few well-chosen words, Portugal’s Head of State put António Costa’s executive on what is almost certainly a final warning. He will not be responding affirmatively to calls to dissolve parliament this time – but the government has to up its game, and do so fast.

President Marcelo will be returning to Portugal from Brazil in order to swear in the new Minister for Infrastructures, who still has not been named.

Lusa news agency suggests the appointment (or appointments, as it is possible PM Costa will announce a government ‘reshuffle’) will be announced on Tuesday or Wednesday.