Is Portugal’s political system broken? if so, is it worth saving in its current form?

 In Corruption, ICPT, News, Politics

Politics is important because it is the only way to counter the idea that politics is poor, politicians are corrupt and self-serving, that all politicians are the same, and the idea that politics and politicians don’t serve the country which, in the opinion of politician and commentator Miguel Relvas, is a “totally false one”.

So said the former secretary of State for Local Administration and Territorial Planning (2002-2004) who was the guest speaker at a lunch organised this week by the International Club of Portugal in Lisbon.

Relvas has been no stranger to political controversy in the past, a decade or so ago, during the PSD government led by Pedro Passos Coelho when he served as Deputy Minister of Parliamentary Affairs who too more recently has been in the headlines after he wrote the preface to an extremely controversial collection of essays by traditionalists, moralists and conservatives who slammed ‘wokism’ and what they perceived to be the ills of putting the needs of small select groups in society above the majority and the greater good.

Upon becoming Minister of Parliamentary Affairs in 2011, Miguel Relvas was said to have appointed for himself and his four secretaries of state a total of 56 advisors (“assessores”) and support staff—a remarkably high number in view of the fact that the total staff of his Ministry was only 65. The most blatant case was the hiring of his previous chauffeur from Parliament for €2,448 per month (compared with less than €1,000 for most government drivers) despite already having three Ministry chauffeurs at his disposal.

As a member of Parliament, Miguel Relvas was one of several Portuguese parliamentarians accused of having pocketed out-of-town housing allowances despite living in Lisbon, and airfare allowances for trips not made or made in travel classes of service other than those entitled. As president of the municipal assembly of Tomar, he was accused of having made €30,000 in phone calls on his official phone paid for by the municipality. None of these or other claims of misuse of public funds were substantiated and none resulted in legal proceedings.

But Portugal, he said, should not be disconcerted by the rising tide of discontent from the country’s young people over corruption, translated into a tide of populism expressed and reflected so often by young politicians; neither criticise them, but rather make the most of this wave of indignation to carry out urgent and long overdue reforms.

Populism or extremism?

In Brazil, for example, where popular discontent is played out on digital platforms and social media, this wave of dissatisfaction is felt more intensely with what he termed “digital populist extremism”.

Portugal has only just begun to wake up to this social media phenomenon over the past four years, following the example of Brazil and the United States, both deeply divided societies, and even Brazil’s own president has constructed an image, model and narrative using social networks.

Portugal’s president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, dubbed the ‘selfie president’, himself was quick to harness the power of populism by marketing himself as a grass roots people’s president.

And political parties used to doing traditional politics in Portugal such as the centre-right PSD and centre-left PS, along with other parties, now must face this reality of social media.

Today, ministers and secretaries of State already have a significant presence on Instagram and TikTok on a personal level, establishing a relationship between the elected and the electorate.

And you only need look at the TikToks posted by Lisbon Mayor Carlos Moedas on a range of issues and actions to see how political personalities are reaching out to their young audiences in a bid to be relevant, get across a message, or simply keep up with the times.

So, this kind of ‘fast politics’ is now being used by an increasing number of politicians, parties, and institutions, including even the Church, but it seems to be at best extremely reductionist and at worse dangerous because it implies that extremely complicated problems can be solved through a few simple ideas reflected in 60-second sound and vision bites with catchy slogans.

It also reflects, in the opinions of some, the poor media literacy in the age of social media. It has become so serious, indeed, that the US government moved closer to banning TikTok on April 24, this year after President Joe Biden signed into law a US$95 billion foreign aid bill. The law includes a provision to force ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to either sell its American holdings to a US company or face a ban on the app in the country. TikTok has said it will fight any effort to force a sale.

Relvas says we must be more careful when classifying what we do, and that people seem to tend to disparage populists. “I know how to distinguish between and separate out populism and extremism” he said.

It is true that far-right extremism is often wrapped up in populist messages and could be perceived as one of the biggest threats to democracy around the world. It has been seen in Russia over the past 20 years, in India, the United States, Brazil, Hungary and even Poland more recently.

Political populism builds on a worldview based on the antagonistic opposition of ‘the good people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’, and is often connected to ideologies such as nativism, misogyny, authoritarianism and racism.

And the word ‘populism’ has certainly been a gift to the far right, particularly Chega, which has drawn its support at grass roots levels from often not very well-educated low-income people who feel ignored, abandoned and forgotten by mainstream political party discourse.

And it’s nothing new. It is often about galvanising certain sections of society around simple ideas (which of course never are) around immigrants, social minorities and corruption.

It was employed by the Nazis in the late 1920s and early 1930s who during the great depression in Germany picked its rank-and-file members for its SA brown shirts from the unemployed and undereducated sections of society who felt forgotten by the mainstream socialist and liberal parties at the time. You find your scapegoat; ‘the others’ and repeat the mantra “they are not like us” until the general populace has a convenient and misguided outlet for their frustrations and anger.

In recent years, serious research on populism has reached somewhat of a consensus which makes it clear that it is secondary, at best, in defining any kind of politics. The two main schools of thought broadly disagree on whether populism is a thin ideology which involves a moralistic element (by pitting a “pure” people against a “corrupt” elite) or whether it is simply a discourse that constructs a people as being against an elite, without any further specificity attached to those two groups.

Reading the papers and talking to grass roots people (mostly taxi drivers in my case) there is a very real perception, rightly or wrongly, that Portugal’s governing class is elitist, self-serving and intrinsically corrupt.

But the problem is what constitutes corruption? I was sat next to an affable luncheon companion and friend of Mr. Relvas who suggested to me that Portugal is not particularly corrupt.

Instead, he suggests that what we’re seeing is more an exchange of favours, a system of ‘tachos’ (meaning pots and pans) but roughly equates to ‘jobs for the boys’ in English and that in the grand scheme of things such favours and backhanders are petty and don’t add up to significant amounts that prejudice the public purse or economy.

Often, in practice, it means that when a government changes, the manager of a public company, institution or government department will bring in his or own people, people they have confidence in, have often known since university, and went up with them through the party ranks from the party youth organisations.

But a glaring illustration of when this type of problem is serious and does cost society was the much publicised recent financial scandal at Portugal’s oldest charitable institution Santa Casa de Misericórdia de Lisboa (SCML) when the Vice-Provost, Ana Vitória Azevedo, who had resigned, admitted that there were managers without a team to manage, managers where the manager was the only person in the section or department, and an astounding 488 middle managers, 279 senior managers, 107 directors and 102 department heads in an institution with 6,000 staff. No surprise then that 63% of total revenues were spent on staff, much of it on senior and middle managers.

But back to populism, a phenomenon certainly not confined to the US, Brazil and Portugal. The current President of France, Emanuel Macron, was elected on the back of a populist discourse, and Portugal’s president too, in an institution that does not have a tradition of populism, was likewise voted in on the back of a populist discourse.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s style from day 1 has certainly been popular; a kind of male version of Princess Diana, at home kissing babies and posing with fishmongers for selfies in a way that never would have gone down with an elitist and traditional politician and economist like former President Ánibal Cavaco Silva.

Relvas says: “You may or not agree, but as the dictator Salazar once said: “In politics what seems to be is”, and we are today living this reality.” This difference is very significant in the way politicians communicate and how they reach out to different sections of society.

He uses an analogy: “It’s like the difference between a chicken egg and a duck egg. Everyone eats chicken eggs even though they are small, not that fleshy, and full of cholesterol; but no one eats duck eggs which are large, even though they are healthier, for the simple reason that when a chicken lays an egg, it sings”. (I.E, neither egg nor duck sing!)

Avoiding tough issues

Very often, says Relvas, politicians tend to run away from issues that are difficult, and fall into a discourse that is easy. A tendency to avoid citizens and the problems that they face with a discourse that they don’t have to pay the price for now but will have to later.

And it is this contradiction that is for Relvas worrying. “In the case of justice, we don’t have the politicisation of justice, but we have the judicialisation of politics”. (Meaning, one supposes, the relocation of the legislative power among governmental institutions)

“Often we look at the circumstances in relation to how justice works in the country or even at the relationship between politics and the economy, forgetting the more supervisory, regulatory and interventionist role of the State that shouldn’t interfere in the economy, but has to be able to intervene and supervise when necessary on our behalf as citizens in a society that is as unbalanced as ours is, in which administration very often operates more in favour of itself rather than in favour of the citizen”.

This duty of citizenship was fundamental, one that had to be deepened and valued because it is decisive regardless of the circumstances.

Abstaining rather than participating

“Today, he said, we have a government in a European country with policies that don’t diverge much from the space occupied by the left and right. We have candidates in the EU elections who need to understand that they must represent Portugal in Europe and not Europe in Portugal”.

And there was a tendency and appetite to abstain and not participate in core political issues; to make speeches that didn’t mean anything to ordinary people, who very often are indifferent to the role they occupy in the European Union, a space which is not federal, results in little, and does not seem important for their lives. But this was not true.

“Some 70% of our lives is defined within the context of the European Union and a large part of our legislation is significantly conditioned by the European Union.”

Politicians, he said, should avoid weak thought and should not be afraid to embrace difficult topics.

Not only that, but they also had to be able to anticipate what’s on the horizon. “If they had been able to foresee what was coming in 2007, 2008 and 2009, then certainly nothing of what happened in 2011 and 2012 would have occurred,” said Miguel Relvas referring to Portugal’s sovereign debt crisis which toppled the PS government of José Sócrates and opened the door to the Troika intervention, negotiations with which Relvas was involved in, and are recalled in his book ‘The Other Side of Governing’ which outlines the failure to reform the local and central administration and justice systems in Portugal, the flaws and dysfunctions of which, in part, were exposed during that crisis.

Miguel Relvas, who is often involved in debates on CNN Portugal, also defends a reform of the electoral system in Portugal, but he says he is not overly concerned over the polarisation and rise of the far right in Europe, but rather with the far left. “I can’t conceive even debating with them. There is an incompatibility hardwired in my hardware and software between me and the far left. I don’t believe in the reason of force but rather the force of reason.”

And rounded off his talk by lamenting that so few young people today don’t want to go into politics and serve the public in parliament because of the low salaries. They could earn more in business.

And it is a problem not only confined to young people. How many business leaders who built enterprise empires do you see sitting in Portugal’s parliament today? Not many, I would guess.

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: ICPT