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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Portugal

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2015

Government and Politics

Portugal has been a democracy since the peaceful 1974 Carnation Revolution, which took place four years after the death of António Salazar, whose authoritarian Estado Novo (New State) had ruled the country for nearly four decades. In 1976, a new constitution was ratified, and since then Portugal has functioned as a modern progressive democracy.

The head of state is the president. He or she is elected by means of universal suffrage for five years, though no president may serve more than two consecutive terms. According to the constitution, Portugal is a semi-presidential republic, that is, executive power is shared between the president and the prime minister. In practice, however, the power that the president has wielded has been more limited.

The president oversees general operations of government. He or she also appoints and dismisses the prime minister, appoints other senior governmental figures on recommendation of the prime minister, and convenes and dissolves parliament. The president is also a symbol of national unity and ensures the independence of the Portuguese state. He or she is aided in these tasks by the Council of State, who consult with the president over national issues. The current president is Aníbal António Cavaco Silva, who was elected in 2006 and is in his second term.

After a general election, the president normally asks the leader of the party with the largest number of seats to become prime minster and attempt to form a government. The prime minister is leader of the government and, in practice, has the greater part of the shared executive power. He or she directs, carries out and is responsible for government policy, supported and aided by the Council of Minsters (the cabinet). The current prime minister, Pedro Passos Coelho, has been in office since 2011.

The Portuguese legislature is unicameral; the single chamber is the Assembly of the Republic of 230 seats. Members are elected by universal suffrage for four-year terms using the proportional representation system. In addition to debating and voting on legislature proposed by the government, the Assembly authorises the raising of revenues and reviews laws passed in Madeira and the Azores. These two island groups are Portugal’s two autonomous regions, and they are largely self-governing. The other 18 districts are each run by a governor who is appointed by the Minister of the Interior.

Portugal has many political parties. The most important are the Social Democrats (Partido Social Democrata, centre-right). the Socialists (Partido Socialista, centre-left), the People’s Party (Partido Popular, centre-right) and the Communists (left-wing).

Legal Systems

As with most Continental European countries, the Portuguese legal system is formally codified and is therefore a civil law system. Laws are contained in statutes; the supreme source of these laws is the federal constitution, which was promulgated in 1976 and has since been amended several times. Portugal is a member of the European Union, which means that EU laws also apply in the country by means of directives and regulations. All legislation is reviewed by the Constitutional Court (Portuguese Tribunal Constitucional), to check that it is in line with the constitution.

The judiciary in Portugal forms the third branch of government, and is completely separate from the other two. The highest court in the land is the Supreme Court of Justice (in Portuguese, Supremo Tribunal de Justiça). Judges are appointed to this by the Upper Magistrates’ Council (Conselho Superior da Magistratura).

There are four regional judicial districts, and trials are by jury. One recent event in Portuguese was the decriminalisation of virtually all drugs in 2001 as part of a health-based approach to the drug issue. Since this time, drug use has remained stable or declined among the young and deaths from drug abuse have slumped.




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