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Portugal: The way ahead for anti-corruption

João Paulo Batalha

This post was originally published in Portuguese on the Transparency International Portugal website.

Degrading trust between Portuguese citizens and government institutions is an increasing concern for political and opinion leaders.

In the last several years, citizens have watched as corruption scandals, cases of ethical misconduct and conflicts of interest exploded across Portugal. New cases of corruption surfaced in Parliament this year, including some Members of Parliament (MPs) who are accused of pocketing extra money by overcharging taxpayers for trip expenses.

Vulnerable institutions

These types of scandals widen the gap of distrust between voters and elected representatives and reveal how vulnerable public institutions are to corruption. The Portuguese government and Parliament demonstrate a lack of political will and ability to establish ethical and conduct standards for their members. The government has shown a lack of vigilance in preventing abuse and an unwillingness to punish corruption when it occurs.

When institutions do not value ethics and do not develop protections against abuses, the vices of bad politicians become the vices of the very institutions that protect them. And when this happens, the gulf of distrust and alienation of citizens deepens, which jeopardizes democracy itself.

Small steps towards improvement

Despite these challenges, there have been small, incremental anti-corruption advances at the national level, including importantly, in the judicial system. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) seems more determined to fight corruption and the new Attorney General, Lucília Gago, recently reaffirmed this notion. The PPO is focusing its efforts on asset recovery, so that criminal punishment corresponds with the recovery of goods stolen from the taxpayer.

However, in order for the PPO to succeed, the government must provide the necessary resources to fight corruption and strengthen the financial autonomy of the PPO. Otherwise, the PPO will continue to work with a shortage of funds and trained staff, which will threaten its effectiveness.

Corruption perceptions

With a score of 64, Portugal dropped two points on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) since 2016 and one point since 2017. While single year-on-year changes are not statistically significant, Portugal’s stagnation on the CPI is indicative of an overall global trend, where most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption.

Corruption in Portugal is more than just the misappropriation of public resources. There is another side that is more insidious and much more damaging to democracy: the capture of the state by organized interest groups with disproportionate access to decision-makers and an enormous capacity to influence the action — or inaction — of public authorities.

Current political challenges

Despite political promises, the government has been slow to act on corruption nationwide. It responded to issues of ethical misconduct and conflicts of interest by implementing a weak code of conduct that has proven to be ineffective. Meanwhile, for more than two years, Parliament has been debating a set of measures to increase transparency. These measures are not based on a thorough study of the problems and vulnerabilities they seek to address, and there has been little public debate.

Without established rules or monitoring mechanisms in Parliament, self-censorship remains the primary way members examine their own behaviour. The ethics sub-committee rarely identifies, much less sanctions, conflicts of interest among MPs. Despite discussing and promoting ad hocamendments to some laws and regulations, Parliament and, by extension, most political parties still don’t see an urgent need for a national integrity system to defend institutions and prevent ethical abuse.

Next steps

Policymakers must accept that these cases are toxic to citizens’ confidence in democracy, and must call on academia and civil society to participate in an open discussion on how best to address these failures and protect democracy. A failure to do so will lead to greater disillusionment amongst citizens, and opens the door to populist, undemocratic forces.

Political leaders can help stop corruption by confronting the issue with openness, humility and honesty. Now is the time for the government to seize the opportunity to tackle systemic corruption. If not, citizens will make their voices heard in October, when they vote in parliamentary elections.

This blog is part of a 25th anniversary series showcasing anti-corruption efforts from chapters around the Transparency International movement.

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