Portugal’s Costa survives parliament vote, but not unscathed
LISBON — Portugal’s Socialist government survived a parliamentary censure vote Tuesday thanks to its far-left allies, but Prime Minister António Costa faces a struggle to recover from widespread public anger at his administration’s handling of forest fires that killed more than 100 people.
“The suffering of the victims and their families and the Portuguese people’s feeling of insecurity demand a response,” Costa said ahead of the vote in the parliament. “But taking responsibility cannot be reduced to a ritual act of institutional atonement, it has to be a firm commitment to do what has to be done, to change what has to change.”
The censure motion was introduced by a conservative opposition party, the CDS-People’s Party, after wildfires swept the north and center of the country last week, killing more than 40 people. Four months earlier, more than 60 people perished in Portugal’s worst-ever forest blaze.
Costa’s government has been accused by the left and right of not acting fast enough to improve fire prevention and response times after the June fires, failing to reach out to victims, and criticized for delays in heeding warnings of extreme weather conditions.
“The government failed. There was absolute incompetence. The state was absent,” said CDS-PP leader Assunção Cristas. “When the country needed a statesman, all we got was a crafty politician. We have a prime minister who is not up to the job.”
Costa had been riding high on a wave of good economic data.
Her motion secured support from the larger center-right opposition group, the Social Democratic Party, but was voted down by Costa’s Socialists with backing from the Portuguese Communist Party and the radical Left Bloc.
The vote was a test of unity for the left-wing alliance that underpins Costa’s minority government. Although critical of Costa’s response to the fires, the two far-left parties said this was not the time to bring down the premier.
In parliament, Left Bloc leader Catarina Martins denounced the censure motion as an act of “obscene” political opportunism. However, she asked Costa: “What happened? How could the government be so unprepared?”
According to EU data, Portugal has lost over half a million hectares of woodland because of forest fires this year, more than half the total lost in the entire European Union.
A forest fire in Vieira de Leiria, Marinha Grande on October 16 | Ricardo Garcia/EFE via EPA
Faced with such numbers and with protests held in several cities, Costa called an emergency Cabinet meeting Saturday that passed a slew of reforms designed to strengthen defenses against wildfires. Measures include professionalizing the mostly voluntary fire service, strengthening the role of the military in tackling fires, creating a specialized civil protection structure and modernizing emergency communications.
He also accepted the resignation of the interior minister and earmarked €130 million to rebuild homes and businesses consumed by the fires.
Riding high in the polls
Despite the changes, analysts say the fires have damaged Costa’s popularity, which had been riding high on a wave of good economic data. On October 1, the Socialists celebrated their best ever results in nationwide city hall elections.
The first opinion poll published since last week’s fires showed only a drop of 1.1 percentage points in support for the Socialists, leaving them way ahead of the opposition, but it was carried out for the Correio da Manhã newspaper while the fires were still raging and may not reflect the level of popular discontent.
“We have a country that’s been devastated, the state failed and we have a weakened government,” said Pedro Siza Vieira, appointed as deputy prime minister by Costa on Saturday.
Costa’s efforts to recover face a number of challenges.
The Social Democrats are in the process of selecting a new party leader to replace former prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho, who is stepping down.
Neither of the two candidates in the running is a fresh face: Rui Rio was a long-serving mayor of Porto and Pedro Santana Lopes flopped during an eight-month stint as prime minister in the mid-2000s. However, both are relatively untainted by the unpopular austerity policies pursued by Passos Coelho’s government from 2011 to 2015, and could provide Costa with a more effective opposition.
President Rebelo de Sousa has threatened to use his powers to dissolve parliament.
Further to the right, Cristas is proving a thorn in Costa’s side, despite the small size of her conservative outfit.
Although the Communists and Left Bloc stood beside Costa in Tuesday’s vote, they are likely to take a tougher line with the government from now on. Both scored badly in the October 1 local elections and could seek to galvanize their bases by distancing themselves from the Socialists.
Also troubling for Costa is the blow to his, until-recently, rosy cohabitation with Portugal’s center-right President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
The hugely popular Rebelo de Sousa has seen his standing soar as he captured the national mood last week, rushing to fire-affected villages to console victims and asking for forgiveness on behalf of the state. Photos of the head of state embracing tearful pensioners went viral way beyond Portugal’s borders.
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visits the Oliveira de Frades industrial park, destroyed by the wildfires | Nuno Andre Ferreira/EFE via EPA
Although the president has a largely ceremonial role, Rebelo de Sousa has been scathing in his criticism of the government and has threatened to use his powers to dissolve parliament and call new elections if Costa does not take urgent and effective measures to prevent further fire disasters.
“This is a last chance to take the forest seriously and make it a national priority,” Rebelo de Sousa said in a speech last week from the stricken town of Oliveira do Hospital. “I will be watching and where there is weakness, I will use all my powers to ensure that weakness will cease to exist.”