The October 2015 legislative elections in Portugal have raised the prospect of a significant change in the Portuguese party system. As Lydia Beuman noted in her election report, the election results have raised the prospect of an unprecedented entente between the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) and the parties to its left, the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português, PCP) and the Left Bloc (Bloco de Esquerda, BE), to form a left-wing government. At the time of writing, the negotiations between the left-wing parties are virtually complete, with the Socialists and Left Bloc approving the deal, and the Communist Party’s Central Committee deciding on it today.
The prospect of a left-wing government has also generated substantial interest in the powers of the Portuguese president with regard to government formation. Since the short-lived (and ultimately failed) attempt by President Eanes to appoint presidential-inspired governments that circumvented the political parties in 1978-79, the president’s power of appointment of prime ministers has been largely disregarded. Indeed, presidential practice since then has been to appoint as prime minister the leader of the most voted party or list, and all of these PMs then saw their governments successfully invested by parliament. This pattern may explain why Siaroff (2003) classified the Portuguese president as not having discretionary appointment powers since the 1982 constitutional revision. However, as we shall see next, the Portuguese constitution grants considerable discretionary power to the president with regard to the appointment of a prime minister.
So what is the process of government formation in Portugal? The constitution stipulates that “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister after consulting the parties with seats in the Assembly of the Republic and in light of the electoral results” (article 187, no. 1). This Prime Minister, as formateur, then proposes a government to the President, who appoints the rest of the cabinet: “The President of the Republic shall appoint the remaining members of the Government upon a proposal from the Prime Minister” (article 187, no. 2).
Government formation follows a standard two-stage process. Thus, once the first stage of government appointment is concluded, this new executive must obtain investiture by parliament. The parliamentary investiture regime is characterised by Cheibub, Martin & Rasch (2015) as a weak one, being reactive, ex post and requiring a negative majority to topple the government. In terms of constitutional conditions, this second stage requires that:
– “Within at most ten days of its appointment, the Government shall submit its Programme to the Assembly of the Republic for consideration, by means of a Prime Ministerial statement” (article 192, no. 1);
– “The debate shall not last for more than three days, and until it is closed, any parliamentary group may make a motion rejecting the Programme, and the Government may request the passage of a confidence motion.” (article 192, no. 2); and
– “Rejection of the Government’s Programme shall require an absolute majority of all the Members in full exercise of their office” (article 192, no. 3).
If a government programme is rejected by parliament, the entire process of government formation is started anew.
As can be gleaned from the constitutional provisions, the president has considerable discretion in terms of appointing a prime minister. While the constitution states that he must do so “in light of the electoral results”, this proviso does not remove presidential leeway. The process of government formation in the aftermath of the 2015 legislative elections bears this reading out.
Having met with all the parties with seats in Parliament, President Cavaco Silva formally appointed the outgoing prime minister and leader of the centre-right Social Democrat Party (PSD), Pedro Passos Coelho, as prime minister on October 22nd. This appointment took place even though the leaders of the left-wing parties (which together have a parliamentary majority) all announced they would reject this government, stating their preference for the appointment of the leader of the Socialist Party as prime minister.
The Passos Coelho government will have its programme discussed in parliament this Monday and Tuesday (November 10th and 11th). Barring a last minute coup de théâtre, such as the rejection of the deal with the PS by the Communist Party’s Central Committee or a rebellion by Socialist backbenchers (both highly unlikely scenarios), this government is set to fail its investiture by parliament. This will trigger the automatic resignation of the government (article 195, no. 1(d) of the Constitution: “The Government shall resign upon rejection of the Government’s Programme”). The process of government formation will then be restarted.
The uncertainty associated to this forthcoming ‘second stab’ at government formation again highlights the president’s discretion over appointing a prime minister. Rumours have emerged in the press that President Cavaco Silva may opt not to appoint the leader of the Socialist Party as prime minister, preferring instead to have a caretaker government until fresh elections can be called (parliament can be dissolved in approximately six months, as the constitution precludes dissolutions in the initial six months after a legislative election – article 172[i]).
The veracity of these rumours is at best uncertain: Cavaco Silva has always been a very guarded politician, and his circumspection is unlikely to have faded in this final (and quite likely most significant) act of his political career. Moreover, judging from the debate this prospect has generated, such an option would not be very popular on the right either. However, the fact that the possibility of President Cavaco Silva not appointing the leader of the PS as prime minister exists (and is being discussed) is in itself a reflection of the degree of presidential discretion over prime ministerial appointment in Portugal.
[i] There has been much talk in Portugal that the current political impasse is facilitated by the fact that President Cavaco Silva is in the final six months of his term of office (which ends in March 2016), when a president is precluded from dissolving parliament (also in article 172). However, even if the President were not in his final six months, fresh elections would still only take place in April/May 2016, because of dissolution is barred in the first six months after a parliamentary election.
Carlos Jalali (D.Phil., University of Oxford, UK) is Assistant Professor at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, and is currently a visiting scholar at Brown University, US. His research is on Portuguese political institutions, parties and electoral behaviour, published in Party Politics, South European Society and Politics and Journal of Political Marketing, among others.