President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa
© Rui Ochoa/Presidência da República

President lays into ‘tired’ government; complains of year “practically lost”

Leader writers focus on “failing State”

In a week when doctors, nurses, teachers, court staff, railway workers, even farmers are either on strike, or protesting (or doing both at the same time), President Marcelo has laid into the “tired majority” government that in his opinion has wasted “practically a year”.

In an interview with RTP TV and Público newspaper, previously recorded at the president’s official residence, Palácio de Belém in Lisbon and released yesterday evening, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa reiterated his intention to “do everything possible to fulfil his legislature”, but intimated that he is very mindful of his constitutional power to dissolve the government.

The occasion was presented as ‘marking Marcelo’s seven years in Belém’ – a little spurious on the basis that mandates are for five years, and he is now half way through his second (and final) stint as Portugal’s president.

Much more relevant is the ‘political context’ in which the interview took place’, which is one of thinly-veiled despair.

Satirical programme Isto é gozar com quem trabalha highlighted the issue affecting the ‘tired’ government last Sunday, when it lampooned the press conference given by Finance minister Fernando Medina to announce… a 12 percentage point drop in public debt. It was, said the minister in apparent reverence, “impressive”. But as the television show following the evening news pointed out, “you can’t eat public debt…

Since then, political voices more and more have been referring to the State of failure; the rot in plain sight.

In an opinion piece today, Nuno Tiago Pinto, direct of Sábado, explains it is unlikely that Portuguese people ‘jumped for joy’ over Medina’s ‘good news’. “A hamper of 63 essential foods can cost €230,76 today, €47,12 more than it did last year. In terms of accommodation, the price of houses and rents keeps climbing. Public transports are beset by queues and passenger complaints. Anyone who travels by train has to face successive paralysations. Teachers have been on strike for months. There are complaints in all the State’s essential services. If we join to this the strike by court clerks and the lack of faith in the country’s justice system, we are facing a failed State. On the same day that Medina announced the “impressive” reduction in debt, he said this would “widen the scope of action” by the government. There is no shortage of places to start”.

Thus Marcelo’s ‘overview’ last night added something of a bitter cherry to the melting pot of discontent. He has been seen as a great ally of the prime minister in the past. That now seems long gone.

His reading of the past year was that the government essentially got caught unawares by the war in Ukraine, and that “everything that was intended for the government to become active (when it took office a year ago) only began in September” (…) “until September there is really lost time and then it was prolonged, with the various internal upheavals in the government as a result of these circumstances”.

There was the little matter of endless ‘scandals’; umpteen resignations – and TAP, which the head of State considers is equivalent of “radiation in the body… irreversible”.

Marcelo’s narrative is very much like translating Latin: there are so many levels and potential interpretations.

According to Lusa, the president mentioned “the existence of an alternative” as a factor to be taken into account for an eventual dissolution (of parliament) to be considered in a case of “irregular functioning of the institutions that reaches such a dimension that it paralyses the existence of the State budget and makes governance impossible”.

Essentially, it means Marcelo has a low opinion of the government, but no greater opinion of the PSD opposition.

“When asked if there is an alternative in the opposition, he replied by invoking the most recent opinion polls”, Lusa continues: “There is arithmetically, not politically. Arithmetically most polls show that at the moment the centre-right and right-wing parties have as a rule a higher percentage added together than the left-wing parties, and that has been consistent, and above 45%.

“Arithmetically at this moment – but we are three and a half years away from elections – there is an alternative. But it’s not a political alternative, because one of the parties says it refuses to get along with the third party. The Liberal Initiative refuses to get along with right-wing Chega… so the votes don’t add up”.

For “an alternative to be strong (it) has to have a party leading the hemispheres that is stronger than the others, clearly stronger”. Marcelo clearly doesn’t see that in the PSD which he described as “a weak alternative in leadership”.

And then came another swerve, again delivered with customary inscrutability:

“Who is in the wheel now is the leader of the opposition. Only an outsider enters if the one in the wheel decides to leave the wheel or conduct the dance in such a way as to make room for another to enter: If not, there may be several who would like to enter, who do not enter the wheel.”

Lusa’s text stops there – but it is no coincidence that the name of former PSD prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho has been being bandied about increasingly frequently in these troubled times as potentially returning to politics, with even Marcelo pointing out that Passos Coelho’s work was ‘never completed’ (PSD actually won the elections of 2015, but was unable to take power as António Costa formed the left-wing geringonça coalition that everyone hoped would turn Portugal’s fortunes around).

As to the general feeling left by this interview, it shows Marcelo would have very different ways of dealing with the various crises.

He believes, for example, that negotiations with teachers should move to discussing ‘phased adoptions’ of changes that are undoubtedly needed.

In the president’s mindset, the government is “managing (the country) day-to-day, and not looking at the long-term (…) The prime minister and I have very different readings on reality”, he told his interviewers – and the only reason that social discontent in the country is still merely simmering is because unemployment “has had a favourable evolution”. If that changes, everything could change was the message.

As to the President’s thoughts on the other topic very much in the public’s mind right now – the Church and how it is dealing with the issue of historic child sex abuse, Marcelo agreed that last Friday’s pronouncements by the Episcopal Conference were “a disappointment” falling short “on all the important points”.

“As President of the Republic the expectation that there was was so simple: it was to be quick, to assume responsibility, to take preventive measures and accept reparation. And suddenly it’s all backwards, in general terms, or each to his own side,” he lamented

Except that it isn’t: it seems public opinion (for that read outrage, disgust and a degree of mystification) is changing the tide. New measures have been promised by the Church, to be announced later today. Bishops who said one thing are now backtracking massively: change does finally appear to be happening (see top story to come).

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