Portugal: is Marcelo “popularist”?

Last March 9, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa completed three years as President of Portugal. His tenure has been widely acclaimed among the population, and stirred some controversies in academic and some political circles. What is Marcelo’s imprint on the political landscape of the country?

Recent opinion polls suggest Marcelo has reached very high levels of popularity. Although with a slight tendency to decrease over the last year, Marcelo still commands some 70% of positive opinions among the population at large – restoring the popularity of presidents to the levels obtained by Mario Soares (who left office in 1996 with 70%) or Jorge Sampaio (who also terminated his term with more than 55%), in sharp contrast with Cavaco Silva who, in spite of having had high marks, ended his tenure with negative (-13%) ratings. Cavaco Silva’s poor showing dramatically reduced his capacity to interfere in the political arena, and this fact has been widely acknowledged. So, restoring popularity is normally seen in Portugal as a necessary means to enhance the capacity of presidents to have a significant word on a multitude of aspects of political life, regardless of the constitutional provisions that remain unchanged. To dispose of high rates of popularity is thus a goal of every president.

Marcelo originates from the centre-right wing of politics, but his rise to power was mostly achieved by means of personal qualities and less by virtue of his line-up with the leadership of the parties of his political family, as his predecessor had done. His atitude towards the government issued from the 2015 elections was radically different from that of Cavaco Silva or the leaders of PSD and CDS: he recognised it as legitimate due to the existence of a parliamentary majority that supported the prime minister, even though the Socialist Party had only scored the second place in the popular vote. Throughout these three years, Marcelo has maintained the same position, not challenging the legitimacy of the government. He could then benefit from the positive atmosphere generated around a government that also benefits from the esteem of the electorate, as seen by the local elections of 2017 and consistent opinion polls that grant the left-wing parties a comfortable majority.

On the other hand, Marcelo has made a point of surgically distancing himself from the government in some critical instances, always intent on asserting the lineage of a centre-right politician. To start with, he broke with the tradition that assigns presidents a visit to Spain as the first foreign trip of their terms in office, and preferred to fly to the Vatican to meet the Pope (the country is nominally Catholic but the state is laic). Several other symbolic initiatives were taken along similar lines. But the confrontation that many expected he would pursue was not systematic. More than this, it did not derive from the use of his constitutional powers. For instance: veto power. In this area, Marcelo only used his veto power on eight occasions, and in all of them he forfeited the possibility of having the bills appreciated by the Constitutional Court, which might have produced a constitutional veto which would then require a special majority to be overturned, and preferred to use a political veto that could be overturned by simple majority. They were, so to speak, “friendly vetoes” that could be accommodated by the prime minister. In fact, as a former professor of constitutional law, Marcelo has never called upon the Constitutional Court to help in the analysis of controversial bills.

The source of Marcelo’s influence, paradoxically, resides in his extra-constitutional powers – namely the power of the word. As a former pundit who entered every house on Sunday nights for long years, commenting on every aspect of public life, Marcelo envisages his presidency much in the same vein: he offers his view on whatever issue is on the news. This technique of mass communication tends to generate an effect of proximity with citizens (illustrated by the fact that he excels in taking selfies with whoever asks for), and thus his presidency has been termed “the presidency of affections”. The photo that illustrates this post bears testimony to the proximity of the president with the people at large.

The power of the word, exercised in full view of the public, is critical to understand Marcelo’s presidency. Contrary to convention that suggests presidents and prime ministers exchange views in private (as Cavaco Silva has recently reminded us in bitter terms), or that their views are expressed after some bill has been presented for promulgation, Marcelo has inaugurated a new figure: to offer his opinion (and suggest the sense of his action) before the bill is presented to him, as to preempt the possibility of a veto. Two important pieces of legislation illustrate the presidential influence. Back in 2016, the prime minister announced he wished to propose a bill referring to the direct election of metropolitan areas governance bodies – and the president said it was not a good idea. Although the measure was in PS electoral manifesto and the government’s programme accepted by parliament, the prime minister did not pursue this initiative. More recently, Marcelo made it public he wished the proposed new law on the Basis of the Health System (framing the existence of the National Health Service) to be approved by more than the left wing majority in the House, and went further as he suggested that he would veto the bill if it were to exclude the private sector from participating in the management of units of the National Health Service. He even expressed his support to a draft bill proposed by a former Health minister which did not garner support in the parliamentary majority. Although the presidential position evolved (as he must have realised this is a bill which needs only a simple majority and therefore it would be possible for the left majority to impose its view whatever it would be), PS was split by this initiative and the original project was withdrawn in order to accommodate the presidential views. These examples make it clear that the weight of the president’s word is enhanced (or diminished) by their popularity and their capacity to stay tuned to the main stream of public opinion, even though one may not posit that in every instance the president expresses majoritarian views.

We have so far established that Marcelo is a popular character in Portuguese politics. For some people, however, the price of popularity is a concession to populism. Does the president enjoy high levels of popularity because he opens the doors to populism, i.e., to a form of political criticism that downplays the role of constitutional institutions? Or, conversely, is the president’s popularity an antidote to the rise of populism in the country (as many suggest), being able to contain criticism within the boundaries of established institutions?

Marcelo has been a moderate critic of the government, not less because the prime minister enjoys the sympathy of the electorate. But he has been tough on various occasions. Perhaps the most dramatic intervention of the president is the one linked to the great fires of 2017, which represented a very clear failure of the government to act swiftly. Public opinion turned then against the government, and the president expressed their voice. As mentioned in a post in this blog published at the time, Marcelo both expressed the view that the minister of Home Affairs was no longer able to keep her position (the prime minister proposed to replace her the following day) and the government needed to have its legitimacy refresh in the House (CDS presented a rejection motion that did not pass). Again, a tough intervention through the use of the power of the word – not the decision to dismiss a minister or the prime minister. On another count, Marcelo has made it clear time and again that he regards as a democratic imperative that the opposition to the government be strong and offers real alternatives. The fragility of the right of centre parties at a time when polls indicate they are at a loss and strategically divided offers the president an important arena to have his voice heard. However, he never hinted he would intervene directly over the party system (as he remains a member of PSD, albeit with his militancy suspended)

However, the frontier between the intervention of a popular president and that of a populist leader tend to be fluid. For this reason, it has been suggested that Marcelo should be considered as a “popularist” – i.e. both popular and at times populist. If so, it would be adequate to acknowledge that Portugal has so far been spared the plague of extreme right wing populism. The thesis that the Iberian Peninsula would avoid those dangers to democracy due to the long and painful experience of 20th century authoritarian regimes (Salazar and Franco) seems to be at odds with the reality of the emerging Vox party in Spain, and so new ideas are required to explain why Portugal has so far avoided the contagion of what seems to be a powerful force in modern Europe. So far, we may consider that Marcelo’s popularity has been a factor in mitigating its impact. The next elections will be a test. Will Portugal pass the test?

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