Sacramento State University

Is Portugal truly on the Path to Stability? by David Christopher Couto

            Since Portugal renewed it’s democracy in 1976, economic instability and government ineffectiveness have plagued the country.  Leaders and government change often while progressive legislation is rare.  Three factors have prevented successive Portuguese governments from following their agendas.  Frequent elections, the procedure of government, and financial instability have caused numerous upheavals. 

            Frequent elections have jeopardized government efficacy.  Portugal holds legislative elections every four years for its unicameral Assembly of the Republic.  Local elections are held every four years as well, but staggered 2 years after Parliamentary elections.  Meanwhile, Presidents can serve up to two 5-year terms.  Although Portugal has electoral laws similar to other democracies, the frequency of elections are not fixed by the Constitution.  The powers of the President constantly uproot the legislature.

Portugal’s form of government is a Semi-Presidential Unitary Republic.  The President holds few powers and the unicameral parliament controls government policy.  The Assembly runs the country, but the President may veto a bill, appoint judiciary staff, choose what party may form a government, or dissolve the Assembly.  The latter has led to several instances of early elections.

            The President is mostly free to dissolve Parliament whenever chosen, except for a grace period to newly formed governments.  The Portuguese consider this to be a symbol of Democracy’s functioning.  In 2001, following the government’s inability to progress it’s agenda and economic turmoil, Prime Minister Antonio Guterres resigned.  Guterres’ Socialist Party was unable to work with the Social Democrats.  The Socialist President Jorge Sampaio quickly dissolved Parliament to allow a new government to form.  Potentially, a new government could stop the stalemate in Parliament and begin passing legislation. 

            However, the following Social Democrat-led government fell into stagnation within 3 years.  Sampaio dissolved this government and the Socialist Party, under Jose Socrates, regained the majority in the subsequent elections.  In the new government, the two parties compromised in order to accomplish a plan of austerity.  Portugal’s economy was weak, even before the financial crisis of 2008.  Portugal had little choice but to implement the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.  The government survived a full term and the 2009 elections saw the Socialist majority renewed.

            The coalition between the two largest parties was not remade and instability ensued.  Fiscal circumstances deteriorated further as the budget deficit reached 9.4% of Gross Domestic Product.  The opposition in government passed a no-confidence vote based on spending cuts and higher taxation.  The Socialists and Social Democrats happen to share significantly similar political platforms, yet the government is at the will of the EU and IMF.  Socrates resigned in 2011, the government dissolved, and the Social Democrats returned to power.  This government fulfilled its term and in 2015, the Social Democrats received most of the votes in the election.  However, it was not a majority. 

            A Socialist-led coalition with the Communist Party and the Left Bloc was refused the right to govern by President Cavaco Silva.  In response to the dissenters, Silva stated that Portugal could have democracy or it could be a member of the EU.  He would not forego the past administration’s work toward repaying Portugal’s sovereign debt, for the sake of democracy.  Nevertheless, the Social Democrat government lost a vote of no-confidence 11 days after the election and the Left-leaning coalition was permitted to form a government. 

            Portugal seems to be returning to fiscal and governmental stability.  As of 2018, the budget deficit was down to 0.5%, but unemployment remains high.  Although the current administration has endured its term, 2019 presents a new election and new challenges.  The current President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is a Social Democrat and Parliament is seeking to continue a coalition government in opposition to Sousa’s party. 

            Will President Sousa maintain the government’s composure if the Socialist coalition wins again?  Will the next government survive four years?  Will Portugal still be held to the will of the EU and IMF?  Multi-party governments are rare and the country is obligated by its debt arrangements.  If prior circumstances persist, so may government instability.

Photo courtesy of, no known copyright restrictions.

Leave a Reply