Portugal – President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa: hyperactive and omnipresent in uncertain times

On 16 June President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa marked his first 100 days in office. Rebelo de Sousa is a new kind of president: hyperactive and omnipresent. His relationship with Prime Minister Costa, leader of the Socialist Party (PS) is peaceful and co-operative. Who is President Rebelo de Sousa and why does the conservative president support a socialist government?

The 67-year old law professor Rebelo de Sousa is a centre-right politician. He was one of the founders of the Democratic People’s party (PPD), later renamed as the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Under Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemão (PSD, 1981-1983), Rebelo de Sousa served as Secretary of State for the Presidency of the Council of Ministers (1981-1982) and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs (1982-1983). He was leader of the PSD party (1996-1999), and member of the Council of State (2000-2001, 2006-2016). In the presidential election, he was not an official candidate of PSD but stood as an independent. Unlike his predecessor Aníbal Cavaco Silva (PSD)[1], President Rebelo de Sousa known as ‘Professor Marcelo’ never held a top state position but gained widespread popularity thanks to his long years of work as a political commentator on television.

The new president, who claims to read two books a day and sleep no more than four-and-a-half hours a night, is considered to be ‘hyperactive’. Since his inauguration on 9 March, he has participated, reportedly, in no fewer than 250 initiatives, including seven state visits abroad. His speeches, statements and other kind of public appearances have received much media attention, which, allegedly, has contributed to his rising popularity. Critics believe that the President’s ‘omnipresence’ could put him on a collision course with Prime Minister Costa.

Compared with Cavaco Silva, the new president is closer to the people, cares less about protocol and acts more like a non-partisan president. “He [Cavaco Silva] just wasn’t present in the lives of the our citizens”, said Maria de Belém, the former acting leader of the PS. Marisa Matias of the Left Bloc said: “Cavaco [Silva] was a president who occupied himself with inaugurations in the intervals of his subservience to the ruling party, his own.”

Prime Minister Costa’s government consists solely of members of the PS but enjoys parliamentary support from the Left Bloc (BE), the Communist Party (PCP), and the Green Party (PEV). Underpinning this leftist alliance – together they control 122 seats in Portugal’s 230-seat National Parliament – is a 138-page compromise agreement between the four parties aimed at gradually winding back the austerity measures adopted by the Passos Coelho government. Yet, government decisions are ultimately subject to the approval of the BE, PCP and PEV. Policy is thus the outcome of ad-hoc agreements between the government and their parliamentary coalition partners.

Despite the fact that the President and Prime Minister are from opposing political forces, institutional conflict has been largely absent in Portugal because, firstly, President Rebelo de Sousa supports the current government in order to encourage political stability. In his presidential victory speech, he called for consensus between political parties to “heal the wounds” of the political crisis.[2] “I won’t create any problem, any instability, any criticism of government action. I will try to keep the basis of support for the government intact.” True to his word, the President approved the 2016 anti-austerity budget and promulgated the 35-hour working week law for civil servants[3], despite the fact that the Popular Party (CDS-PP) and PSD had voted against both laws. The President vetoed the surrogacy law. Another reason why ‘intra-executive conflict’ has been largely absent is because the President and Prime Minister are close personal friends, which, most probably, has facilitated peaceful institutional cooperation.

President Rebelo de Sousa knows he plays a critical role in fostering political stability. His hyperactivity is one symptom of this. The president has the power to dissolve parliament when, for instance, decision-making is paralysed due to interparty conflicts. This scenario is not unlikely to unfold in reality. The socialists and communists have a long history of intense hostility, which prevented them from forming a left-wing coalition government. In particular, EU related issues could generate friction between the pro-EU government and its “anti-European” allies. The leftist alliance is the first since the birth of democratic Portugal four decades ago.

[1] Former President Aníbal Cavaco Silva was Prime Minister from 1985-1995.

[2] In October 2015, Portugal was plunged into crisis following inconclusive parliamentary elections. The centre-right coalition of PM Pedro Passos Coelho (PSD) won the most votes in the 2015 parliamentary elections but lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed since 2011. Passos Coelho formed a centre-right minority government, but was forced to resign after parliament passed a censure motion.

[3] The law reduces the length of a working week for civil servants from 40 to 35 hours.

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