In an unforeseen twist in Portuguese politics, Prime Minister António Costa has submitted his resignation following a corruption probe that has seen key figures in his administration placed under arrest. President of the Republic has accepted Costa’s resignation, signaling a major shift in the country’s political landscape.
The Unraveling Scandal
The departure of Costa comes on the heels of a sweeping investigation into the dealings of the lithium and hydrogen sectors. Vítor Escária, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, and Diogo Lacerda Machado, a prominent businessman and close associate of the Prime Minister, were taken into custody. Their arrests were part of a broader action that also implicated João Galamba, Minister of Infrastructure, Duarte Cordeiro, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and João Pedro Matos Fernandes, the former Minister of the latter portfolio.
Law enforcement officials conducted raids at various locations including the Prime Minister’s official residence and the private dwellings of several ministers. Arrests extended beyond the immediate government, with Nuno Mascarenhas, the Mayor of Sines, Afonso Salema, CEO of Start Campus de Sines, and Rui Oliveira Neves, the legal and sustainability director of the company, also being detained. Central to the investigation are allegations of influence peddling and corruption tied to contracts for lithium and hydrogen exploration, a scandal that was officially acknowledged by the Attorney General of the Republic (PGR) earlier in January.
Political Implications and Future Scenarios
The shockwaves of this political earthquake may lead to early elections, as the President considers the next steps for the nation. It has been confirmed that Costa will not seek re-election, and it appears certain that any future government will be a coalition, given the fracturing political unity. Not only will Portugal potentially face general elections, but also the European elections, making 2024 a pivotal year.
If early elections are called following the dissolution of the Assembly of the Republic by the President, they must occur within 55 to 60 days post-dissolution. The timeline commences only after the presidential decree is issued, following consultations with the Council of State. The constitution sets no specific mandate for when the new government must take office post-election. It is up to the President to appoint the government based on the electoral outcome. The swearing-in of the new Assembly must happen before the new government begins its term. The general tabulation of the election results is required to be completed within ten days following the election, with the outgoing government remaining until a new executive is installed.
Replacement of the Prime Minister
Alternatively, the President might appoint a new Prime Minister. Portuguese law does not stipulate a specific timeframe for this process. The historical precedent for such a replacement occurred when José Manuel Durão Barroso left the government in 2004 to become President of the European Commission, with Pedro Santana Lopes succeeding him shortly after.
With the Prime Minister’s resignation accepted, the President will engage in discussions with the political parties holding parliamentary seats. Additionally, a Council of State meeting has been scheduled. The outcomes of these meetings will determine whether a new Prime Minister is appointed or if early elections are in the horizon.
The government’s collapse brings the current legislative session to a halt. The proposed State Budget law for 2024 is voided and will require a fresh legislative process under the new government. In the interim, the last ratified State Budget law remains in effect, with constraints on expenditure to ensure continuity of public services and adherence to financial obligations.
Portugal stands at a crossroads, with its political future hinging on the decisions made in the coming days. The unfolding events underscore the country’s commitment to legal accountability, at the potential cost of political stability.