Controversy over ambiguous law to limit mayors’ terms may not be clarified in time
Menezosaurus Rex (Luís Filipe Menezes, current Social Democratic mayor of Gaia and candidate for Porto; Photo by PSD)
In early autumn voters in Portugal will choose their mayors and civil parish leaders. A 2005 law imposing term limits for local elected officials promised to make 2013 a year of renovation in local political structures. 150 of the country’s 308 mayors have been in power for at least 12 years, leading to concerns about monopolies on power. The most famous case of these widely called ‘dinosaurs’ is Braga’s Mesquita Machado, who has led the country’s third largest urban centre since the first democratic local elections in 1976. Also in the minds of voters are other controversial mayors which keep winning elections despite judicial troubles and suspicions of corruption.
Threatening this renovation may be the text of the law itself, which does not specify if the term limit applies to the office or to the territory; the latter case opens the possibility for old mayors to run in different municipalities. Paulo Rangel, then a Social Democrat MP and now a Member of the European Parliament, claims to have written the law and thinks these candidacies should be not be allowed. The party’s former parliamentary leader and current Secretary of the Council of Ministers, Luís Marques Guedes, claims however that the negotiations between the party’s leadership and the Prime Minister at the time, the Socialist José Sócrates, reached the opposite conclusion.
Now in power, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) is preparing to present old mayors as candidates in Lisbon, Porto and in five other municipalities. It is in a rare agreement with the Communists, which will probably present three candidates in these circumstances. While members of the coalition partner People’s Party have spoken against these candidacies, the party will support the PSD candidate in Lisbon. With the unclear position of the socialists on the topic, the Left Bloc, the smallest group in parliament, seems the only strong opponent. It has promised to challenge the results and has the support of citizen associations, which have registered complaints about the PSD candidates.
Parties and independent movements have to present their tickets 55 days before the election. If objections are raised, the challenges may arrive to the Constitutional Court, which will have to decide until 20 days before the election, leaving little time for parties to adjust in case of a restrictive interpretation of the law. The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Miguel Relvas has suggested that the Parliament should issue a clarification on the issue but it is not certain this will occur. Even if the ambiguity of the text opens the door for any decision, most experts seem to agree that the Court is likely to choose the least restrictive interpretation. It seems that in Portugal, dinosaurs will live on.