Saturday, January 15, 2022

Whatever the election outcome, democratic freedom will prevail

In the run-up to Portugal’s national legislative election, it’s worth remembering that this country is internationally recognised as a stable parliamentary democracy with a multiparty political system and free and fair elections every four years – except the timing of this latest is different.

The Prime Minister holds the most executive power within the parliamentary system, although the President of the Republic can veto legislation or dissolve parliament and trigger an early election.

President Marcelo Rebelo da Sousa did just that towards the end of last year when the incumbent Socialist government under Antonio Costa failed to get their 2022 budget proposals approved. Hence the snap election on January 30 after just two years.

Under a proportional representation arrangement, Portuguese voters select 230 parliamentarians to fill the seats in the Assembly of the Republic.

The Freedom House global research and advocacy organisation based in Washington D.C., notes that Portugal has established a strong pattern of peaceful power transfers through regular elections since the return to democracy in the 1970s. In its most recent global index, Freedom House has rated Portugal’s political status very highly. It says that Portuguese voters and politicians are free from undue interference by forces outside the political system. Women and members of different ethnic, religious and other minorities enjoy full political rights and participate in the political system. Women held 38%of the seats in the last parliament. Parties espousing racist, fascist or regionalism values are constitutionally prohibited.

The two autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira have their own political structures, legislative and administrative powers. While located a long way from the mainland – the Azores archipelago 1,600 km west in the mid-North Atlantic and Madeira 1,000 south of Portugal and 700 km off the west coast of Africa – the rights of their people to self determination have long been recognised and respected by the parliament in Lisbon. The islanders are culturally, politically and economically closely associated with Portugal and the European Union.

Some top politicians as well as judges, bankers, business executives and football club presidents have plagued continental Portugal with corruption scandals that the government in recent years has struggled to cope with. A report issued by the European Commission has highlighted the need for improved anti-corruption efforts. While several laws to enhance accountability and transparency for elected officials were approved in 2019, enforcement and effectiveness remain inadequate.

Other major challenges facing any new government will include the 2022 budget and making the best use of the economic relief funds provided by the European Union. COVID-19 will remain a very difficult issue in the year and perhaps years ahead.

Further pressing matters, such as strike-prone workers in various sectors and the ill-treatment of convicted prisoners, will be high on the agenda for the next government, but it remains to be seen if they can be tackled directly by a majority government or a more complicated coalition.

The two main centrist parties in the last parliament are sure to dominate again. The centre-left Socialists (PS) had 108 seats and the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) had 79. Opinion polls show the Socialists still the clear favourites to win. The Socialists ruled with support from the far-left from 2015. The centre-right Social Democrats, who are thought of as liberal conservatives, will certainly finish second if not first.

Both the centrist parties and their voters are somewhat concerned about those who are so fed up of the main parties that they will go with the far-right Chega (Enough) party that has whipped up much attention since its founder, Andre Ventura, entered parliament with the party’s single seat in 2019. The far-left, comprising the Left Bloc and the Communists, are trailing, as are The People-Animals-Nature Party and other small groups.

Whatever the latest election result, democracy will be faced with very difficult decisions, but freedom and civil liberties will prevail.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

The pandemic, hospice care, homelessness and hunger

 In addition to the high number of people infected by COVID-19 and the pressure this is placing on the Portuguese national health staff, the pandemic is impacting seriously and increasingly on the many vital charities helping those in need of palliative care, the homeless living on the streets, and also families with insufficient food to put on their tables.

This state of affairs is worrying though understandable because it is due in many cases to COVID restrictions causing insufficient volunteers or donations.

Based in the western Algarve, Madrugada, is an outstanding hospice service that provides free palliative care for those wishing to remain at home. Madrugada recognises that it’s a person’s right to choose where they would preferred to be cared for during their last remaining days, and where they would prefer to die. 

Their end-of-life home services have continued during the pandemic, but have been made more difficult by a shortage of volunteers to staff their charity shops upon which Madrugada heavily rely. Because of advancing years or health issues, many of the shop volunteers have had to limit their exposure to the public during the pandemic. Additionally, precautions are needed for staff assisting patients and for family members who do not live locally and have had tremendous difficulties in travelling to the Algarve to be with their loved ones in their final days.

We will be reporting more on Madrugada in the weeks ahead.


Surveys have shown that Portugal has well over 8,000 people living rough, more than half on the streets of the Lisbon metropolitan area. More than 80% of them are men. The total number of homeless rose substantially after the 2008 recession and again in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds have been given sheltered accommodation, but shelters are not able to cope with the rising number of homeless nationwide. This is despite a law passed in 2019 that placed the responsibility on the government to provide adequate housing for citizens.

As the international Borgen Project points out, the government is working with NGOs to alleviate - and try to eliminate -  housing problems. In some cases this has provided people with access to independent apartments in Lisbon and elsewhere while offering support services to meet specific individual requirements. Street teams of medical volunteers backed by funding from public and private resources give health care to the homeless. The Lisbon city council has pledged to spend €14.5 million and make 400 new homes available by 2023.


The Knomea Global Hunger Index shows that before the pandemic the percentage of undernourished people was 2.5% of the total population. Things have got much worse. Studies conclude that the pandemic has pushed about 400,000 more Portuguese people below the poverty line. Job losses in the past two years have meant that many more low-income and even middle-income families are unable to pay for sufficient meals.

A large number of national and local organisations are dedicated to minimising hunger or risk of hunger. The Federation of Food Banks Against Hunger conduct regular campaigns to collect, package and distribute tons of meals through associates. The campaigns were interrupted by the pandemic in May 2020, but back on track last November with volunteers standing outside supermarkets awaiting donations of healthy foodstuffs.  

The Portuguese branch of the international ReFood movement, started in Portugal 10 years ago, now has more than 60 centres across the country working to “rescue good food to stop waste and help local communities.” It’s run entirely by volunteers that currently number about 8,000. Together with 2,500 partner enterprises, they deliver 150,000 meals per month.

Rather than looking back at the COVID impact difficulties, Portuguese charities are trying to keep one step ahead in case things worsen.  



Saturday, January 1, 2022

Main concerns for the new year



The first major event for the Portuguese population will be the national election on 30 January. Hopefully the turnout of voters will be higher than usual and give one of the parties an overall majority, or at least lead to a working coalition to stabilise the country for the next four years. Bolstered by its competent handing of the COVID crisis, the centre-left Socialists (PS) led by Prime Minister Antonio Costa are still favourites to win. The far-right Chega party will certainly increase its representation in parliament and may finish third in the election after the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD). The Left Bloc and the Communists are trailing. One of the first tasks of any new government will be to review the 2022 budget proposals rejected by the previous parliament, which led to this month’s snap election.


As it enters its third year, there is no chance of the pandemic going away anytime soon and probably not in the 12 months ahead. More irritating uncertainties, controversial decisions and disruptions are expected. Like the rest of the European Union, Portugal finished 2021 with a surge in infections caused largely by the Omicron variant. High vaccination rates and everyone abiding by the necessary restrictions will be essential to keeping hospitalisations manageable. The official mantra will probably be unchanged: “The Portuguese government has been taking all necessary public health measures to protect the entire population as well as our visitors.” Caution: COVID can be a fast changing scenario, but some website articles are published without a date and are, in fact, out of date.



On the shores of the Atlantic but still part of the Mediterranean climate region, Portugal is one of the most vulnerable European countries to extreme weather conditions. Worsening heat-waves, wildfires and droughts are anticipated, endangering agricultural production, natural habitats and wildlife. Sea levels will continue to rise and pose a threat to coastal communities. The UN Ocean Conference scheduled for 27 June to 1 July in Lisbon will address the impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans, which is one of the most significant challengers to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Of special concern is “eco-anxiety”. In a recent survey, 81% of Portuguese respondents aged between 16 and 25 said they felt “frightened,” “sad”, “helpless” or “angry” because what they perceived to be a lack of global action on climate change.


As in most other European countries the pandemic sparked a recession in Portugal, but the latest OECD survey predicts that the economy will grow by 5.8% in 2022 with the gross domestic product surpassing its pre-crisis level by the middle of the year. The survey notes that robust growth is mainly driven by domestic demand and will be stimulated by the absorption of EU funds. Portugal is to receive €13.9 billion in grants and €2.7 billion in loans from the EU until 2026. The timely arrival of €2.2 billion, 13% of the pre-financing payment under the EU’s recovery and recovery programme, could be complicated if there is a failure to end the current political stalemate in this month's election. The recent rise in production costs, due mainly to energy prices, is not expected to fuel underlying price pressures substantially.



Tourism and travel-related revenues accounted for 19.8% of the country’s GDP in 2019. It had increased from 11.9% in 2000, growing at an average annual rate of 2.83%. This sector will have to cope with the inherent difficulties of COVID if the pandemic carries on into spring and summer this year. Much will depend on any restrictions on airline and hospitality services, particularly in the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto regions, as well as the ease with which holidaymakers will be allowed to travel from Portugal’s six top markets, namely Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and the Netherlands. Visitors from abroad will be welcomed figuratively with open arms, but many more workers will be needed. The shortfall of workers in the travel and tourism sector is said to be 85,000.    



The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the NGO Transparency International will continue to their work in uncovering corruption that has been rampant at top levels of society in Portugal for years. ICIJ’s 2021 ‘Pandora Papers’, following its earlier ‘Luanda Leaks’, has exposed the hidden assets and secret offshore dealings and criminal enterprises of the global elite. One of ICIJ’s targets has been Isabel dos Santos, the billionaire daughter of Angola’s former dictator, once distinguished as Africa’s richest woman, now disgraced and living in exile. Her assets in Portugal and elsewhere have been seized and she is banned from the US as various criminal investigations continue. Other cases we will be hearing more about in 2022 involve former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates who is awaiting trial accused on multiple corruption charges and former economy minister, Manuel Pinto, arrested for alleged corruption linked to the energy company EDP.


Saturday, December 11, 2021

A COVID survivor tells us what may await if we don’t take care

Some people continue to be complacent about becoming infected by COVID-19 even with the uncertainties posed by the latest variant in the run-up to the normally busy festive season.  

One thing virtually all medical experts agree on is that as many people as possible should get fully vaccinated, yet some people are still refusing to do so despite the current widespread surge in infection and death rates.

In recent days we spoke to a resident in the Algarve who is suffering from post-COVID condition, otherwise known as long COVID. He wished to remain anonymous, but wanted to encourage those refusing vaccines to change their minds and get the jabs as soon as possible. Those refusing because of complacency “are stark, staring mad!” he said.

He has had personal experiences he would not want anyone else to go through. Indeed, he feels very fortunate to have survived.

How he contracted the virus almost a year ago remains something of a mystery. He was living alone in a relatively isolated home and had stopped mixing with almost everyone except when he went shopping no more than once a week in the nearest supermarket.

Did he wear a facemask and adhere to the social distancing rules when he went shopping? “Absolutely!” he said. “Like everyone else I was being cautious about my movements.” However, he had not been vaccinated when he contracted the virus because the slow-starting vaccination programme in Portugal had barely begun.

His first reaction to feeling COVID symptoms was one of shock. “I felt hot, feverish and weak. An ambulance took me to the hospital in Portimão where I was diagnosed and admitted to intensive care. It all happened rather fast and I didn’t really have time to take it in.

“After two weeks on forced oxygen, my kidneys started to pack up and I needed dialysis. I had the two weeks hooked up to all those hospital machines, staring at strip lights in the ceiling that are never turned off, and occasionally getting a glimpse of someone who hadn’t made it.

“I had four days of paranoia and was convinced the hospital staff were out to kill me. I reacted violently to their ministrations.

All in all, not a good experience. Does someone refusing to be vaccinated want to go through that?”

He continued: “Now, almost a year on, I struggle with energy levels and feel tired most of the time. I have great difficulty sleeping and constant flash-backs.”

Much remains unknown about long COVID. Thus, since his release from hospital he has had numerous tests and is not expecting to have his last one until next February.

The longer the virus circulates, the more dangerous its variants may become here in Portugal as across the world, but vaccination reluctance continues.

Complacency is not the only reason. Lack of confidence is another, even though the data shows that the benefits of all the well-known vaccines vastly outweigh the risks. Full vaccinations have so far proved to be at least 90% efficient in giving protection. The reason for having them is self-evident.

Few can use the excuse that getting a jab is inconvenient. The programme in Portugal is efficient and the percentage of the population with at least double jabs (88%) is one of highest in the world.

Psychologists say that fear of needles causes some vaccine reluctance. Other more complex psychological reasons exist too and misinformation has played a significant part in the problem. 

Somehow complacency and unreasonable concerns must be overcome if possible, all the more so because the Omicron variant is extraordinarily transmissible. It has convinced many scientists that COVID will be rampant for at least another one or two years and booster jabs may be recommended annually. 

Meanwhile, the plea from our Portimão Hospital survivor:  “Get vaccinated and take all the proper precautions!”

Saturday, December 4, 2021

More clarity needed before euthanasia IS legalised


At some stage after the election on 30th January, the Portuguese parliament will probably want to update the previous parliament’s plan to legalise euthanasia.

 A complex and controversial subject sometimes difficult to cope with by those directly involved, euthanasia must have well-defined legal and medical parameters for physicians, just as it requires a profound personal decision by those facing death, and maybe their families too.

In general terms, euthanasia and assisted suicide mean the deliberate ending of a person’s life to relieve unmanageable suffering. It is often carried out at the voluntary request of a patient of sound mind by doctors painlessly administering, or withholding, a vital drug. Assisted suicide under the supervision of a doctor in accordance with strict conditions usually allows a patient to personally use a drug to end their own life, or insist that all life support should be stopped.

Portugal’s parliament approved a euthanasia bill in January this year, but it was rejected in March by the country’s Constitutional Court to whom it had been referred by President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The court, the highest in the land, ruled that the proposed bill was too imprecise.

A revised version, which was backed by a large majority of parliamentarians last month, was again vetoed by the president on the same grounds. There was insufficient clarity in the wording. It has been pointed out, for example, that the degree of illness to justify euthanasia was variously referred to in the bill as “fatal”, “incurable” or just “serious.”

The composition of political parties in the next parliament may bring about a different attitude to the draft euthanasia proposal, but if and when it passes into law, Portugal will join a few other countries with legislation on euthanasia, namely Spain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxemburg, Canada, Colombia and New Zealand. Physician-assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, the American states of Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. It is also legal in parts of Australia.

Many people in Portugal, where the predominant religion is Catholicism, firmly oppose euthanasia on the grounds that it is against “the word and will of God.”  President de Sousa is himself a staunch Catholic. Other reasons for opposing euthanasia in Portugal and elsewhere on religious or moral grounds include the belief that it disrespects the sanctity of life, that it underestimates the value of hospice care, that it can be abused for financial reasons, that it gives doctors too much power, that it may discourage research into the development of new cures.

 The view of some Christians and non-religious people, however, is that euthanasia carried out entirely legally and under proper conditions allows death with dignity and is fully justified as an act of love and compassion.

What do you think?  

Corrupt football clubs and officials still scoring own goals


After the English Football Association Cup Final in January 1884 between Preston North End and the London side, Upton Park, it was revealed that Preston was breaking the rules by paying its players and so their manager was duly expelled from the annual competition.

In 1885 the English FA decided to make it permissible for a club to pay players, but only if they were born or had lived for at least two years within a six mile radius of the club’s ground.

In 1901 the same FA imposed a maximum weekly wage of £4 per player in even the top football clubs.

Manchester City was involved in a scandal at the climax of the 1904-5 season when it needed to beat Aston Villa to top the First Division. Aston Villa won 3-1, meaning Manchester City finished two points behind Newcastle United in the championship.  Aston Villa’s captain said that, one of Manchester’s star players had offered him a £10 bribe to lose the game. The Manchester player was found guilty, fined and banned from playing for 18 months. As the club refused to help him financially, the Manchester player divulged publicly that his club had been paying players over the £4 a week legal limit. The outrage resulted in the dismissal or suspension of nine senior officials and a ban on 17 players for ever plating for the club again.

Since those harsh punishments more than a century ago, corruption has spread throughout the footballing world, including Portugal, and it has exploded into a quagmire of criminal activities involving vast amounts of money.  

Top Portuguese clubs have yet again been making headline news for the wrong reasons. Public prosecution officials last week made searches in premises closely associated with FC Porto and its chief executive, Jorge Nuno Pinto da Costa.  Among other things they are investigating the payment of €9 million to two agents as part of the €50 million transfer deal for a Brazilian player from Porto to Real Madrid in 2019. The investigation is looking into suspected tax fraud, swindling, abuse of trust and money laundering connected with the transfer of players.

Investigators have long taken an interest in Pinto da Costa. In the so-called Golden Whistle scandal in 2004 and for several years after that he was suspected of corrupting or attempting to corrupt match referees. In 2008 the Portuguese Professional League suspended him for two years, relegated FC Porto and imposed a fine of €150,000.  Porto’s Boavista FC, was also relegated and fined €180,000.

‘Golden Whistle’ phone taps on Pinto da Costa conspiring in 2010  to offer not only cash but prostitutes to referees were leaked and published on YouTube, but not accepted as proof of wrong-doing  by the courts. The accusations, however, backed up opinions that he was not only one of the most successful executives in Portuguese football, but also one of the most corrupt.

Many other Portuguese football officials are said to have been involved in various kinds of deep-seated corruption, none more so than Luis Filipe Vieira president of Lisbon’s Benfica, the most popular of all football clubs in Portugal and FC Porto’s biggest rival. He too has long been suspected of tax fraud and money laundering on a grand scale. He is said to have been helped because he is on friendly terms with highly influential Benfica fans, including judges and leading politicians.

Vieira was detained and placed under house arrest in July this year while investigations continued into suspected tax fraud, money laundering and other crimes involving more than €100 million “that may have caused considerable damage to the state and several companies,” according to Portugal’s Central Department of Investigation and Criminal Action.

Vieira, who ran Benfica for 18 years, resigned and a court ordered him to hand over his passport and allowed him 20 days to pay bail of €3 million. Among three other people detained and released on bail was Vieira’s son, Tiago.   

The Portuguese whistle-blower, Rui Pinto, who grew up as an FC Porto fan, gathered millions of confidential documents and 3.4 terabytes of information that exposed corruption on a truly massive scale, not only in Portugal but across Europe and beyond. Among other things, the data indicated the role of offshore tax havens for huge transfer deals and club investments that were poorly policed.

Rui Pinto’s football leaks fed to a network of investigative journalists resulted in him being arrested, extradited from Hungary and eventually brought before the Lisbon Central Criminal Court to face scores of charges related to hacking.

But the cat was out of the bag. Judicial inquiries were launched in France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland. Major clubs, transfer agents and top players were implicated.  Among the latter was the Portuguese international superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, who ended up in 2019 agreeing to pay €18.8 million in Spain for tax evasion.   

World football’s governing body, FIFA, has been steeped in corrupt practices dating back at least two decades with evidence of everything from ticket fiddling and awarding dodgy media contracts to vote rigging in Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

FIFA has been in the spotlight again very recently as its former president, Sepp Blatter, ousted in an extraordinary fraud scandal in 2015, has now been indicted on fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery charges in Switzerland for arranging a secret €2 million payment in 2011. Also charged is Michel Platini, who allegedly received the payment when he was the head of the much blighted European football union, UEFA.

On and on it goes.... Manchester City FC, which was up to those tricks more than a century ago, was last year banned by UEFA from competitions for two years and fined €30 million, but this decision was overturned on appeal because its alleged corruption activity dated back more than  the five-year statute of limitation. UEFA was left looking more shame-faced than Man City.

The latest news connected with corruption is that the British government has just endorsed in principle the setting up of an independent regulator for English football. Not a bad idea for other countries to consider, but, like the coronavirus pandemic, vile corruption in the world of football is not likely to go away any time soon. 


Sunday, November 7, 2021

The snap election: what to expect when voters next have their say


Portugal’s early general election could push the country in one of two very different directions. It could create greater national stability, or it could cause long-term political chaos.


The minority centre -left Socialist Party (PS) has been able to govern remarkably well since 2015, but the surprisingly durable alliance with the far-left has been finally shattered. When the alliance and parliament collapsed with the rejection by the Bloco de Esquerda (BE) and the Communist Party (PCP) of the draft budget bill for 2022, President of the Republic, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was obliged to call for the snap election two years early. It will be held on January 30 next year.


Prime Minister António Costa has expressed determination to lead the Socialists to a “reinforced, stable and lasting majority”. He will be preparing for the election boosted by indications that his party has increased its popular support since the last general election in 2019.


Also encouraging will be the fact that Portugal's COVID-19 total vaccination rate at 87% is one of the highest in the world. It is conceivable that the Socialists could gain enough extra votes to establish a majority government.


The far-left have been shrinking in popularity and their budget rejection may have been somewhat suicidal in that they will no longer have the same influence in national affairs.


The centre-right Portuguese Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the much smaller CDS People’s Party are going through a period of disarray. The far-right Chega, formed just three years ago, is attracting more public support, but is still a long way behind the Socialists even though it could finish third in the January election.


A recent opinion poll put the public support for the PS at 38.5%, the  PSD at 24.2%, the BE at 8.8%, Chega at 7.7% and the Communists at 4.6%. The PAN “greens” and others are lower down.


In calling for the snap election, the first since democracy was established by the revolution in 1974, President de Sousa said, “in moments like this we need to find a solution without fear and without making a drama.” Many in Portugal’s population of 10.3 million are very worried that the January vote may lead to a political mess with no majority government or even some form of workable alliance.


The political crisis comes at a particularly vulnerable time as Portugal tries to emerge from the pandemic and focus the €45 billion in aid granted by the European Union on helping return to economic stability.  A new budget bill may not be presented before next April and whether it will be rejected again is anyone’s guess.


Confidence expressed by Portugal’s ministry of finance that growth in GDP will exceed the EU average in the coming years is now questionable. The hopeful expectation was that such growth would allow the level of well-being for Portuguese citizens to converge with that of people elsewhere in the EU.   


While the PS minority government has been a staunch supporter of the EU, the far-right surge in Portugal will be viewed in Brussels with the concerns it has about the boom in nationalism in many other member states, including the Balkans, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Spain.


The next couple of months could indeed see much political drama and fear.