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Friday Briefing: the President's double trouble

Good morning and welcome to PORTUGAL DECODED, your weekly digest of Western Iberian news. Today, Portugal celebrates purity but its politics look anything but.



CARETAKING | It’s a new dawn for Portugal as President Marcelo formally dismissed the Government last night. From today, the government must limit its action to daily management and administrative decisions, but the Constitution allows room for some discretion, as long the President approves it. This means more power to the President (and he is going through a rough patch, read more on this below).


Next week, on December 15-16, Socialists will choose António Costa's successor. On January 15, the President will formally dissolve the Parliament. On February 25, the campaign for the elections will kicks off, to be held on March 10.


MAKING HISTORY | “Afro Fado” by Slow J has broken the all-time record for a Portuguese album debut on Spotify (also on Youtube, Apple Music, and Tidal). On the album’s cover, designed by artist Fidel Évora, singer Amália and footballer Eusébio shake hands at the old Estádio da Luz, a few months before the Carnation Revolution. The meeting was staged for a French documentary in 1974 that has never been broadcast in Portugal (here’s a video of the moment).

Tickets for Slow J’s upcoming gig on Lisbon’s Altice Arena in March 7 are available here.


LANDING SPOT | The preliminary report into the location of Lisbon’s new airport reached three main conclusions:

  1. The new airport should be a major international hub linking Europe to Africa and the Americas;

  2. The best locations for the new airport are Alcochete and Vendas Novas, both south of the Tagus River;

  3. Lisbon’s current Humberto Delgado airport should continue operating, at least for the foreseeable future.

But, for now, only three things are certain: it will fall to the next Government to decide on the airport; any of the two favoured options will cost at least 8 billion euros and won't be ready before 2031; and works are set to begin shortly in the current Humberto Delgado Airport to optimize its capacity.


BAD GLANCE | Portugal suffered a sharp decline in its students’ academic performance, the OECD’s PISA revealed this week. Portuguese students’ math results plunged by 21 points, their reading scores dropped by 15, while attainment in science went down 7 points compared to 2018. School headmasters pointed to the lack of teachers (62%) and the lower qualifications of teaching staff (27%) as the main causes for the poor results.

On a positive note, the assessment, which examined 7000 students from 224 schools in the country, found out that Portuguese students were happier and had a stronger feeling of belonging to their school than the OECD average.


SUN, WIND AND WATER | Portugal's renewable energy plants generated enough electricity to meet 87% of the country's power demand in November, national grid operator REN said on Tuesday. The positive result owed to the very favourable conditions for hydropower and wind power production.

At the end of November, Portugal also reached a significant milestone by running exclusively on renewable energy for six days in a row, breaking the 2019 record.


EXPLAINER: THE PRESIDENT’S DOUBLE TROUBLE

© Marcos Corrêa/PR

On Tuesday night, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa gave an impromptu press conference to clarify his role in the treatment of two twins with a 2 million euro medication. Read on to find out what the fuss is all about:


How did it all start?

On November 3, 2023, TVI broadcast a special report about two Brazilian twins, who came to Portugal in 2019 to receive one of the world’s most expensive drugs - Zolgensma - for spinal muscular atrophy.

The report described how paediatric neurologists at Santa Maria Hospital had opposed the treatment and sent, in November 2019, a letter to the board of directors, explaining why: lack of money, inability to answer all the requests for the medication, the fact that the children were already receiving treatment in Brazil and doubts about its effectiveness. Nevertheless, the twins acquired Portuguese nationality - in a record 14 days - and in June 2020 they received the treatment.

The report showed a video of the twins’ mother admitting to leveraging the contacts of the President’s daughter-in-law, living in Brazil, to use the President’s influence to facilitate the process. The hospital’s paediatricians confirmed that they had been told the same story - that the President had pulled strings (in Portuguese, a “cunha”) to get the twins treated in Portugal.

During TVI’s investigation it also emerged that the doctors’ letter had vanished from the hospital (although it later showed up). In reaction, the general inspector of health opened an inquiry into the case.


What did the President first say about it?

Following the report, the President publicly denied any intervention in the case at the expense of the cash-strapped national health service.

“I didn’t speak to the Prime Minister, I didn’t speak to the Minister (of Health), I didn’t speak to the Secretary of State, I didn’t speak to the Director General, I didn’t speak to the President of the hospital, the board of Directors or the doctors,” he told journalists on Sunday, November 5.

He also said that he had no recollection of his son ever mentioning the issue to him and he added that he was ready to go to court against anyone who claimed the contrary.


What happened next?

Other revelations came out including that the state bought four electric chairs worth €58.000 for the twins. To date, no child in Portugal with the same illness has received such wheelchairs and, in this case, two of the chairs have not even been picked up by the family.

Last week, the Attorney General (PGR) acknowledged that it is investigating the case. It stressed that no one in specific is being investigated.


Is the “cunha” a crime?

It could be. If it is proven that the President misused his position to give preferential treatment to the twins it could be qualified as an abuse of power, punishable by imprisonment up to three years or a fine.


Could the President face an investigation?

If there is enough evidence to show that President Marcelo committed a crime, the Parliament could open an inquiry if one fifth (46/230) of the total MPs propose it, and two thirds (152/230) approve it.

The enquiry would be led by the Attorney General's Office at the Supreme Court of Justice – exactly like the investigation that led to the recent resignation of Prime Minister Costa.


Why did the President give a press conference now?

After digging deeper into his files, President Marcelo remembered that his son, a friend of the twins’ family, did, after all, contact him requesting help for the twins. Saying that he has always treated his son “as any other citizen,” he said that he passed his son’s request to his team, who advised that “the Portuguese national health service primarily covers the situation of people who reside or are in Portugal.” After this, he said, they sent the information about the case to the Prime Minister’s office and “this is where the Presidency’s intervention stopped.”

The President said that all this information has now been sent to the Attorney General’s office. He rejected calls to step down, denying any wrongdoing. Meanwhile, TVI says it has new details to reveal about the case.


TIP OF THE WEEK

In collaboration with Unique Portugal

© P.Fernandes (Trebaruna)


In the heart of the Serra da Estrela Natural Park, the small, picturesque village of Cabeça becomes every year Portugal’s most beautiful and sustainable Christmas village. The decorations are made by the locals using recyclable materials, such as broom, vines, tree leaves or even sheep's wool and use only LED lighting. Weather permitting, there are lots of things to do outdoors and, of course, gastronomy is another great reason to visit Cabeça, starting with the famous Serra da Estrela cheese.


THE SHORT OF IT

  • Today is Immaculate Conception Day, a national holiday to celebrate Mary, mother of Jesus and Patron Saint of Portugal.

  • Sporting Lisbon regained the leadership of the Portuguese “Primeira Liga” with 31 points, 2 more than Benfica and 3 more than FC Porto (watch the Sporting-Gil Vicente match highlights here).

  • FC Porto is officially out of the Portuguese Cup after losing 1-3 to Estoril (watch the match highlights here).

  • The number of beneficiaries of Social Integration Income (RSI), a social support aimed at protecting people in extreme poverty, reached an all-time low in October 2023: 181,329 beneficiaries.

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