Rui Graça Feijó – On forest fires and Portuguese semi-presidentialism

This is a guest post by Rui Graça Feijó of CES/UCoimbra and IHC/UNLisboa

Since late 2015, Portugal has had a minority government led by the Socialist Party – the second largest in the House – and supported by some sort of confidence and supply agreement with the two parties to its left that provide it with a majority in critical moments. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, from the centre-right, was elected a few months after the new government, was reluctantly inaugurated by the outgoing President Cavaco Silva, and distanced himself from the right-wing coalition in parliament and the legacy of his presidential predecessor who wanted the new president to dissolve the House and call fresh elections. Instead, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa stated publicly that the government would have until the local elections scheduled for October 2017 the chance to prove  its value and capacity. In between time – and in spite of some gestures to appease his electorate – the president did not stop supporting the prime minister and never questioned his legitimacy. In an earlier post, I discussed the possibility that a form of co-government was emerging nicknamed “Costelo” (an amalgam of  PM Costa and President Marcelo). This support was highlighted last June when the country was hit by a severe forest fire (with over 60 casualties) and the President stepped in to claim that “all that was humanly possible had been done”, backing up the government in the face of mounting popular shock for the failure of the civilian protection system.

On October 1, local elections returned a very comfortable victory for the Socialist party – as if the government had been excused for its June failure and in the recognition that new economic and financial policies had largely turned the page of austerity, offering the prospect not only of economic growth, unemployment reduction, deficit control, but more importantly, the recovery of some purchasing power and improved conditions of access to social utilities by millions of Portuguese. The right-wing parties were defeated – and this is particularly true of the largest one, the PPD/PSD, whose leader and former PM announced that he would step down when fresh party elections are called in January. In the face of these results, there would be no reason for the president to challenge the legitimacy of the government or to change his previous stance.

However, on Sunday October 15, a new wave of forest fires broke out, claiming another 45 victims. This second fire exposed the fragility not only of decades-old forest policies, but the inability of the current government to draw adequate conclusions from the June events – it had merely asked for an “independent inquiry” lasting over three months, with little having been done in the meantime to reform the civilian protection authority, which is ravaged by scandals. The shock in the country was even bigger than in June: twice the government had badly failed those who live far away from Lisbon.

After a very uninspired speech by the PM, the President took a bold initiative. He addressed the country from the heart of the ravaged areas. In a short sentence, he asked for a “new cycle of policies” that will force the government to consider “what, by whom, how and when” these new policies are to be devised and implemented. He mentioned that budgetary priorities should be considered again – this was only three days after the budget had been formally presented in the House. And he made it clear that the government needed to refresh its parliamentary legitimacy – either by presenting a confidence motion or winning a no-confidence motion presented by the right wing CDS party, which had fared quite well in the local elections. Unless his plea was heard, he would make use of “all his constitutional powers” to see that the Portuguese would not be let down yet another time, implying he might choose to dismiss the PM or dissolve the parliament. His popularity soared to the point that a left-of-centre commentator wrote: this is the example we can tell our children and grandchildren when they ask us why do we elect a President by universal, direct vote. Only a small number of voices claimed that the President had overstepped his competences. The last barometer (Expresso online, 17 November) shows that the president is the only politician who has risen in popularity to a very high net figure of 62.5% (70% positive, 7.5% negative opinions).

The government responded by immediately accepting the resignation of the minister in charge of Home Affairs. It held a special meeting of the cabinet to approve a string of measures to fight forest fires and reform forest policies which met the approval of the President. It announced that new items would be incorporated in the budget before the final vote. It defeated the no-confidence motion in parliament – although the left-wing partners kept a critical stance during the debate and did not approve all the government’s decisions on this issue. In brief, even if some of this activity was anticipated before the presidential speech, the government was seen as responding to the President’s ultimatum.

This episode lasted less than a week but has shown very clearly that the President, who is a professor of constitutional law, interprets his relations with government not only on a merely institutional basis – as some still argue ought to be his role – but that he believes the government must enjoy political confidence. In his view, the President has the power to oversee government policies and take action if he considers them to be failing to secure minimum standards – as was the case of the forest fires. Here we touch upon a critical point in the definition of the subtype of semi-presidentialism that exists in Portugal, as the dynamics of the relations of power are clearly at stake. The constitutional definition of a dual responsibility of the PM both before the President and the parliament cannot simply be divided in two: a political confidence vis-à-vis the House, a merely institutional confidence regarding the President, as much of the literature on Portugal has sustained. Marcelo has made it clear that, as long as he is President, he enjoys the right to set political boundaries to the action of the government. Going further than merely stating “strategic goals” aimed at capturing a “broad consensus (and being timid in the actual formulation of specific policies), Marcelo is moving one step forward. Take the example of the issue of the homeless. He has publicly asked the government to prepare measures aimed at eradicating homelessness by the end of his term (2021), but rather than waiting for the prime minister to present him with the government’s proposals and discussing the matter with him, Marcelo promoted meetings (which he chaired) to which he “invited” the junior minister in charge of the dossier, plus a number of national NGO’s and, critically, representatives of the Church – intervening directly in the design of public policies in tune with his “social-christian” (and rather assistencialist) personal views on the issue. This is an example of a presidential intervention in the formulation of public policies with few precedents.

It has been assumed that, in semi-presidential systems, there is an inbuilt pendulum which sometimes favours a “presidentialisation” of the situation, and which at other times oscilates in the opposite direction. One well-known commentator proposed thinking of the current situation as “semi-presidentialism of assembly”, given the fact that parliament played such an important role in the formation of Antonio Costa’a government. In other words, when parliaments have solid majorities, the role of the president tends to be less prominent than when different solutions emerge in the House. The example of President Marcelo somewhat defies this “rule”. Confronted with a minority government supported by a majority that has shown no signs of fracturing on critical issues, Marcelo has nevertheless created a high political profile for himself, intervening on a daily basis in the media on everything – as if he were still the political commentator that he was for fifteen years on prime time TV. His influence is directly linked with his popularity (a problem that the previous president, Cavaco Silva, felt acutely during his second term). And President Marcelo’s popularity – which he considers to be his best political asset – comes from a combination of support for the popular measures of the government and incisive criticism of its failures

Much as he is inclined to respect the formal political legitimacy derived from the existence of a majority in the House and to be willing to cooperate with the PM, President Marcelo’s speech on October 17, 2017 marked a decisive moment in the debate on the nature of the relations between the president and the PM in the Portuguese semi-presidential system in a way that emphasized the political competences of the head of state, and thus the double nature of the dependency of the prime minister before both the House and the President. There may be a time when those competences are more dormant, others when they surface more vigorously – but they remain in the DNA of Portuguese semi-presidentialism.

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