Just as the country is expected to exit the State of Calamity declared over the emergence of Omicron before Christmas, a new embarrassment has hit: Constitutional Court judges have ruled the dumping of more than 80% of émigré votes in January’s legislative elections was indeed an assault on democracy. The whole process has to be repeated – at some considerable expense – delaying the timetable for swearing in the new government, and potentially setting Portugal’s economic recovery back by another month.
This story is so peppered with incompetence and ineptitude that it is practically surreal.
The lay person would only really have become aware of it when it became clear last week that 157,205 of the 195,701 votes cast by émigrés living in Europe were being consigned to the waste-paper basket due to a legal ‘blur’ that everyone involved in the process saw coming.
The electoral law stipulates that anyone voting must have identification with them to prove they are who they say they are. In the case of émigrés, this means a photocopy of their Portuguese identification document has to accompany any votes cast.
In the 2019 elections, it became clear that a number of émigrés voting did not supply photocopy ID (indeed 30,000 votes had to be annulled because of this). But instead of the government – more pertinently the Minister of Internal Administration, or even Justice (which happens to be one and the same person right now) – doing anything to officially correct this, a meeting was held before the January elections with representatives, we’re told, of all the political parties who agreed, we’re told, to turn a blind eye to the law, and allow any votes from émigrés to be counted, whether they complied with the electoral law, or otherwise.
This might have worked had the PSD not decided to kick up a stink when the votes finally started to be counted last weekend.
But instead of political leaders stopping to think carefully, coming up with a sensible plan, the knee-jerk reaction was “let’s just trash all the tainted votes”.
It was, as anyone with half a notion of the democratic process could appreciate, an assault on democracy.
Worse, it was a slap in the face to all the émigrés who had been told their votes would count.
Indeed, the number of votes cast by émigrés living in Europe shows Portuguese citizens abroad had heeded the political exhortations to take part in the democratic process. Their turn-out was vastly increased on that of 2019.
And this is where the story takes another dismal lurch: no-one expects the Constitutional Court decision to change anything, or even result in much of a response by the émigrés themselves. Very few are expected to go repeat the whole process, which will involve them driving to special voting centres in their different countries on February 27 (correction: this has since changed to March 12-13) and voting again, with the stipulated photocopy of their ID, in an election in which their votes are certain to change nothing.
This is the degree of absurdity at play. The votes are essentially meaningless as the ‘circle of Europe’ MPs are already in place: one of each main party (PS and PSD).
In other words, the decision that has delayed the government taking office may have technically restored ‘democracy’ but, in practice, it has simply ensured that a lot of people are monumentally frustrated, more time is wasted – and at least €600,000 will be spent on re-scheduling the émigré vote.
Prophetically, perhaps, it was PSD leader Rui Rio who predicted that Justice Minister Francisca Van Dunem would do “nothing” when she was handed the dual role of Minister for Internal Administration after the last incumbent – jinxed almost from the start of his tenure – handed in his resignation in order “not to prejudice the government in the elections”.
Ms Van Dunem “has done nothing at the Justice Ministry” in six years of Socialist government, so she “will do nothing at the Ministry of the Interior”, he tweeted.
And in “doing nothing”, Ms Van Dunem has shown the absolute folly in “lazy decision-making”: the prime minister justified handing her her second ministry on the basis there was no point giving the job to someone ‘new’ weeks before legislative elections.
As Rui Rio remarked last weekend, the whole story smacks of a “Socialist Republic of Bananas”. The tragedy is that it need never have happened.
Writing in Expresso on Wednesday, political journalist Daniel Oliveira put the whole sorry situation into one succinct headline: “An absurd procession of incompetence towards a monumental fiasco”.
Like most pundits, Oliveira believes there will be “stratospheric abstention” by émigrés on February 27.
Could things possibly have turned out any more ludicrous?
Well, yes, they could have… Daniel Oliveira explains the Constitutional Court decision refers only to the so-called circle of Europe. Outside the circle of Europe (meaning areas elsewhere in the world), voting was equally tainted, but no-one challenged the process – and for the record, the PSD vote triumphed. As no-one challenged the process, the judges did not need to pronounce. But had the mixing of votes been challenged, the €600,000 price-tag for ‘restoring democracy’ would most certainly have been even higher.
Adding the cherry to this cake of absurdity, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa vowed no less than three times recently that the vote-count debacle would not stop plans to swear-in the new government on February 23.
In other words, no-one in power seems to have expected Constitutional Court judges to do their jobs – and that in itself seems ridiculous.
As for the new timeline for the swearing in of government, if nothing else goes wrong, it should be ‘officially in place’ by the end of March.
Until then, it will be “carrying on regardless”.
By NATASHA DONN