Paulo José Canelas Rapaz – Portugal, the president, and open primaries for the prime minister candidate

This is a guest post by Paulo José Canelas Rapaz

 Paulo José Canelas Rapaz

President Aníbal Cavaco Silva’s Republic Day Speech and the Socialist Party Primaries

On 5 October, Portugal’s Republic Day, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva gave a speech. Similar to previous presidents, Cavaco Silva reflected on “Republican values” (in a very French sense) and the country’s institutions, calling for political and party system reform.

Even if he was not the first to make such a call, President Cavaco Silva’s diagnosis was considered grim and somewhat pessimistic. He referred to people’s distrust in politics, parties and political personnel in particular. He heavily criticized partisan careerism and the parties’ lack of rejuvenation, as well as their preference for political skirmishing and short-term gains at the expense of “common good”. His proposals were as familiar as his diagnosis: a change in electoral law to make it easier to form a parliamentary majority and to increase proximity/accountability of elected representatives, a better higher administration and statutes governing elected representatives so as to attract new talents and avoid incentives for corruption, conflicts of interest or shadowy means of party financing. Finally and above all, he called for a change in politicians’ behaviour so that a “much needed consensus” in relation to Portugal’s difficulties could be built.

Despite pundits’ comments and President Cavaco Silva’s own preference for more discreet stances and backstage action, there is a sense that “nothing new under the sun” in this speech. President Cavaco Silva himself has made many calls for political consensus on public policies and the reform of the political system and has made similar criticisms of Portuguese political life. Indeed, similar calls were made by his predecessors both on specific topics and more generally, e.g. former President Jorge Sampaio (1996-2006) and his Sermon on Politics (03/27/2001). Furthermore, political reform has been demanded by many sectors of civil society, but to little or avail. This is the case for the much discussed, but never implemented calls for electoral reform.

It is also possible to read the same speech as a function of its audience. The official ceremonies of Republic Day usually take place at Lisbon Town Hall – where the Portuguese Republic was proclaimed in 1910 – the Mayor being present, currently António Costa, the new leader of the Socialist Party. Cavaco Silva’s speech might be read as an indirect message to António Costa. The president’s call for political consensus might be interpreted as a warning yo Costa, who has professed less orthodox views on economic policies and who seems more open to political alliances with leftist parties after the next general elections in 2015.

The presence of António Costa at the speech was also important for another reason. He became the leader of his party not by winning a congress like his predecessors, but through an “open primary” where socialist militants and sympathisers voted for a “Prime Minister candidate”. It was a first in Portuguese politics. It means that even if António Costa wins the party’s general secretariat during this December congress, the positions of party leader and general secretary are now dissociated, and maybe the latter is subordinate to the former. Furthermore, even if it is not known whether “open primaries” will be renewed or extended to other parties – as was the direct election of major-party leaders by militants instead of congress delegates in the 2000s – the implementation of “open primaries” has deep consequences for the political system, which the President might not be happy with.

The Portuguese Constitution implements a clear separation between the President and the Government, between the Presidential function, dubbed a “moderating power” (its origin lies within the Benjamin Constant’s “neutral power”), and the executive. The sharpest separation is electoral: legislative elections are proportional and programmatic, the presidential election is individual and declarative. Every President, at least since Mário Soares (1986-1996), has stressed this peculiarity of the president’s legitimacy. The expression used is that the President is “the only personally elected constitutional institution” (“o único orgão de soberania unipessoal”). The President is outside the majority/opposition parliamentary dichotomy. This concept of presidential function is not the necessary result of the Constitution or of path dependence (the King had a “moderating power” between 1826 and 1910). Presidents have found that this way of thinking about their function grants themselves a political role and avoid the unknowns of parliamentary alternation and everyday politics. This non-executive and non-partisan President – making the concept of “cohabitation” inappropriate in Portugal – has its foundation in presidential legitimacy. Every Head of State since Mário Soares has said they are the “President of all Portuguese”; that is a traditional formula. But, also since Mário Soares, they have declared that “the presidential majority ends with the victory at the presidential election”. This is the only declaration of making the concept of the “President of all Portuguese” a reality.

This legitimacy, the president’s role as guarantor of “the regular functioning of democratic institutions” and its powers (veto, dissolution or cabinet dismissal), turns the Portuguese Head of State into a schmittian figure. This reference has to do with Carl Schmitt’s Der Hüter der Verfassung (1931), “the Guardian of Constitution”. It must be noted that, contrary to the idea of a “moderating power”, this conceptual analogy is rarely made, maybe due to Schmitt’s background. Notwithstanding this point, the Portugal’s “guardian of the Constitution” differs from Schmitt’s idea on an essential point: it does not act as a substitute for other institutions’, its functions are regulatory. However, as with the Reichpraesident in Schmitt’s view, the foundation of the president’s role in Portugal can be found in its direct, personal and encompassing legitimacy. For this reason, every Head of State has defended this legitimacy and fought against the “presidentialism of Prime Minister” and the idea that legislative elections serve to choose a PM. This was the case when Aníbal Cavaco Silva’ Social-Democratic Party twice won an absolute majority in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly due to his own popularity, prompting Mário Soares to become more active. It was also the case when President Jorge Sampaio reluctantly dissolved the parliament after PM António Guterres quit in 2001, or when President  Sampaio refused to call a general election after José Manuel Durão Barroso left for the EU Commission in 2004.

One might say that having “open primaries” to choose a “Prime Minister candidate” is a further step in the evolution of politics generally, not just in Portugal. The personalisation of electoral choice, the diminishing ideological differentiation between governing parties, media preferences for personal quarrels rather than programmatic controversies, and the functional decay of political parties. If they last, “open primaries” in Portuguese politics are nevertheless a major de facto political reform, independently from the “political reform” that everyone has been calling for. It even might create a disequilibrium, which might end in the, already precariously placed, “constantino-schmittian” President.

Paulo José Canelas Rapaz completed a PhD in Political Science on the Portuguese President and its protagonism within the Portuguese political institutions and public arena, at Université Panthéon-Assas-Paris II, in December 2012. Currently living in Lisbon, his personal research focuses on European Presidents.

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