Reengineering democracy in Portugal

It is time to rethink Portugal´s democratic blueprint. Ahead of the forthcoming presidential elections, the real debate should focus on the urgent break with the current semi-presidentialist system. Español Português

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
22 January 2016
Portuguese President Cavaco Silva (right) receives Prime Minister Passos Coelho after elections to talk about the new government. Gonçalo Silva Demoitx.jpg

Portuguese President Cavaco Silva (right) receives (former) Prime Minister Passos Coelho after elections to talk about the new government. Gonçalo Silva/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Portugal is heading to the polls on the 24 of January to elect its new president. However, the actual important question is not who will but if anyone should be elected. After two consecutive terms in office, Anibal Cavaco Silva has led many to believe that Portugal would be better off with a different system of government.

Constitutional engineering is an incredible difficult endeavour. Establishing a blueprint for democracy is far more difficult than constructing a cathedral. Historical, social and political conditions are determinant to build a proper system of government and assure its capability to withstand the full weight of democratic institutions. A failure to identify and comprehensively encompass such factors might have calamitous consequences.

Portugal case is a paradigmatic example of proper Constitutional engineering. After the Carnation Revolution (1974), which marks the beginning of the so-called Third Wave of Democratization, Portugal emerged from a long dictatorship. In a climate of high polarization between communists/socialists and neoliberals, growing divisions over the dilapidated colonial empire, a militarization of politics and the lack of proper structured political parties, enacting a Constitution capable of encompassing the country´s reality was a daunting task. Such social and political factors, together with a growing distrust for past parliamentarism experiences, led to a semi-presidentialist system, which not only granted stability and cohesion, but also atoned for the lack of proper structured parties.

However, such form of government was not conceived as a permanent solution. Its purpose was to grant both cohesion and legitimacy in the turbulent period when democracy was emerging. Nonetheless, semi-presidentialism fossilized and went on to become the exclusive form of government suitable for Portugal. This would not be a problem if the President had been capable of maintaining a neutral position. He was not.

Presidential Powers

According to the Portuguese Constitution (1976), the president of Portugal has at its disposal a set of extraordinary powers. Not only has the power to exercise a political veto that grants him the capability to condition legislation, but can ask for a preventive or successive constitutional review that must be analysed by the Constitutional Court.

However, the main attribute of the president is his power to dissolve the parliament at will. This power is commonly referred as the “atomic bomb”. While respecting certain temporal limits and the electoral calendar, and hearing both the parties that conform it and the State Council, the president can make use of such power and set up the date of the following legislative elections. 

Until the Constitutional reform of 1982, this power was almost unlimited. Since then, the president can only dissolve the parliament to assure the regular functioning of the democratic institutions. When the government fails to fulfil its constitutional tasks, such as submitting its program, submitting the budget or engages in an institutional clash with the president, then the latter is constitutionally empowered to dissolve the assembly and call for new elections. Albeit this was conceived as an extreme and unlikely measure, every president since 1982 (excluding the current President) has exercised such power.

Reforming the blueprint

As the constitutional reform of 1982 recognized, Portugal did not need a strong president figure at the time. The need for cohesion, to strengthen democracy and stabilise political institutions had been answered to. Portugal moved on from a conventional form of semi-presidentialism to a system equipped with a presidential corrective. Albeit powers of the president were limited, the system’s semi-presidential nature endured.

Since then a lot has changed. Portugal is now a mature democracy, where political parties and democratic institutions have crystalized. There are no remnants of dictatorship nor social polarization. Portugal is a successful democracy, a member of the European Union and a law-abiding country according to all international covenants and treaties.

However, Portugal’s democratic system faces a serious threat, as democracy in fact ranks below European rules. The president of the Republic, in charge of ensuring national independence and unity, as well as ensuring the normal functioning of the democratic institutions, has openly taken sides and abandoned his role has a neutral mediator.

After the legislative elections in October 4, and after a motion of rejection presented by the left, Portugal shortest-lived government was over. Anibal Cavaco Silva initially denied the Left its parliamentary prerogative to form an alternative majority government. Cavaco Silva argued that a leftist coalition between the PS (Socialists), the BE (Extreme Left) and PCP (Communists) entailed a risk the country could not afford. In the end, however, Cavaco Silva had no alternative but to appoint Antonio Costa, PS´s leader, as the new Prime Minister.

Cavaco Silva clearly overstepped his constitutional duties as president. He may have correctly pointed out that Portuguese people did not vote for parties that openly defended the return of the former currency and an exit from both the European Union and NATO. However, 50.7 % did vote for putting an end to austerity measures.

Beyond electoral analysis, and the morally shady agreement, Antonio Costa (PS´s leader) managed to become prime minister thanks to an agreement with both an anti-European party and a Stalinist party.

The president might not like the outcome of the elected parties’ negotiations, but he cannot hijack the exclusive powers of parliament. Cavaco Silva used his position as president to impose an ideological agenda over the assenbly by imposing a candidate lacking parliamentary support. Despite the understandable fears that Portugal could relapse, after enduring a set of draconian austerity measures, it is not the president’s role to determine who holds the parliamentary prerogative to form a majority government. Cavaco Siva actions should work as a warning: Presidents discretionary power to dissolve the parliament can be used to impose his will over the legislative branch. Is this something we should overlook?

View of the Parliment during the official April Revolution celebrations in Portugal. Gonçalo Silva Demotix.jpg

View of the Parliment during the official April Revolution celebrations in Portugal. Gonçalo Silva/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Why parliamentarism?

Parliamentarist and presidentialist systems of government differ in their structure. Parliamentarism relies on a mutual dependence between the executive and legislative branches, while presidentialism relies on mutual interdependence. While the former favours coalition forming, awards political flexibility and avoids legislative deadlocks, the latter tends to favour instead the personalization of power and awards the president an independent power base.

Portugal’s current system is often classified as a Premier-Presidential form of Semi-Presidentialism, in-between parliamentarism and presidentialism. Nonetheless, its similarities with parliamentarism are striking. The executive branch, just as in parliamentarism, is only accountable to the parliament. However and here lies the difference between parliamentarism and semi-presidentialism, the president can, indirectly, force the prime minister and his cabinet out by dissolving the parliament.

This discretionary power awarded to the president should not be taken lightly. As recent events show, presidents can, and have done so in the past, put ideology before democracy. A mature democracy like Portugal cannot ignore such a risk. A change towards parliamentarism would safeguard the parliament and assure that the legitimation to govern remains within the parliament walls. Not outside them. Transition would be swift. It would only entail withdrawing the presidential power to dissolve the assembly, neutralising his excessive executive power.  

Reengineering Democracy

Reengineering democracy in Portugal is an urgent task. Just as human beings evolve, political systems should do so. Democracy cannot stand still and fail to adapt to the ongoing social and political circumstances. We have seen how the president has recently put his ideological beliefs over democratic rules. The possibility that a president fails to perform as a neutral actor above political skirmishes illustrates how the disadvantages of having a president surpass its advantages.

Limiting the executive power of the president will transform Portugal in a customary parliamentary system and will open a new cycle in Portuguese politics. Beyond the explained advantages of parliamentarism, it will foster a culture of dialogue and coalition among political forces.

The presidential election on the 24 of January has been a missed opportunity to make the case for a new system of government. What the existing semi-presidentialism brings to the table no longer justifies keeping the door open to presidential abuse. Instead of restraining the debate in who is going to be entailed to become president, Portugal should have been discussing how to ensure his neutrality. Mature democracies should be able to identify in due time what is working, what is not, and what can be improved. And act accordingly. Constitutional engineers should be at work.

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