Notes from the field

We visited Portugal in June 2017 to interview MPs, policy makers, academics, and journalists about the causes, trajectory, and responses to the crisis. Portugal experienced political dynamics similar to many of the other case study countries following the financial crisis. Public apologies were not forthcoming, the multiple narratives of blame conflicted and changed over time, and parliamentary committees of inquiry were largely seen to be ineffective and politicised. Yet Portugal’s experience of prosecutions, including two high-profile, ‘big fish’ prosecutions, showed that the economic crisis was not without effects on the politics of accountability.

Competing, evolving narratives

As in most countries, multiple and conflicting narratives about the crisis abounded. For instance, one common narrative in the early days of the crisis suggested that Portugal was the only Eurozone country without a banking crisis. In this narrative, Portugal primarily had a sovereign debt problem; accordingly, the troika proposed reforms that failed to target Portugal’s banks. Even the two bank collapses in 2008, Banco Português de Negócios (BPN) and Banco Privado Português (BPP), were blamed on politicians’ poor regulation and decision-making. More broadly, whereas some participants pointed to the global crisis as the primary trigger for its domestic woes, others pointed to Portugal’s failure to modernize its economy, or to misplaced investment priorities (in infrastructure rather than in research and development). Similarly, there were a variety of interpretations about which actors played the primary role in shaping the economic adjustment programme: while some blamed the troika for forcing neoliberal reforms, others claimed that the centre-right government embraced the troika’s involvement so they could implement their long-standing policy preferences. By 2013, a new narrative had emerged that placed renewed blame on the outgoing Socialist government. A year later, the troika bore the brunt of anger from across the political spectrum. In short, there was no clear consensus about what went wrong, where blame should be placed, and what ought to be done.

Prosecutions

Just as there is no history of prosecutions for corruption (or other major public crimes) in Portugal, there was no wave of prosecutions following the economic crisis. Yet understanding the Portuguese case requires subtlety. The slowness of the Portuguese judicial system – a process that is often embedded with layers of appeals – and the slow arrival of the crisis in Portugal, means that some investigations are still in process. This inefficiency, coupled with the structure of Portugal’s legal system, offer an explanation for the few convictions seen: the eight-year statute of limitations meant that many of the decisions and activity in the years building up to the crisis were already protected from prosecution by the time political opposition could be marshalled in reaction to the bailout and the resulting policies.

However, there are two contextual caveats that must be taken into account. The first is that the number of prosecutions for public misbehaviour has risen significantly in the past ten years, even preceding the crisis. The second is that it would be inaccurate to interpret the relatively few investigations and convictions seen thus far as purely a lack of political will to prosecute those responsible for Portugal’s troubles. Two high profile cases commanded the public’s attention: the investigation of the former Prime Minister, José Socrates, and the head of the Banco Espiritu Santo, Ricardo Salgado. According to a number of participants, prosecutions of such high profile individuals would have been unheard of prior to the crisis.

Unearthing the truth: Parliamentary Committees of Inquiry

Most of the Parliamentary Committees of Inquiry were seen to be politicised and with limited consequence. One exception to this was the Committee of Inquiry into the Banco Espiritu Santo-Salgado case. Instigated by the unusual partnership of the Centre-right Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party, this PCI was viewed by both the public and the political elite as not politicised and balanced.

Apologies

Members of the Portuguese political or financial elite issued no apologies for the crisis. One reason for this might be the lack of accepted narratives for the causes of the crisis. Apologies often require consensus about who did what to whom, and many factors, from impersonal international forces and supranational bodies, to corrupt politicians and the lack of civil society in Portugal, were all variously blamed for aspects of Portugal’s economic troubles. But most participants did not see public apologies as being part of the Portuguese political tradition or part of the role of government, or felt that they should be reserved for ‘special occasions’.

Institutional changes and lessons learned

Unlike the populist parties that achieved electoral success in Spain, Greece, and Iceland, the dominance of the two main Portuguese parties (the centre-right Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party) has continued throughout the crisis. Most interviewees for the project were sceptical that Portugal had made any meaningful changes that would prevent future crises, and variously pinned the blame on a weak and apathetic civil society, inefficient institutions, and external pressures from Brussels (and the troika). Yet the Portuguese case raises an intriguing set of questions: its approach to post-crisis accountability has been weak and lacklustre, yet certain prosecutions and Parliamentary Commissions have made a profound mark on the public imagination. Moreover, although it has not made many meaningful institutional or political reforms, Portugal has recently benefitted from both economic growth (one of the highest in the EU in 2016), gradually dropping unemployment, and striking political stability. However, the vulnerability of the Portuguese banking sector makes this stability precarious, and its long-term sustainability remains in question.