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Innovations in the Portuguese Local Government
I’ve recently presented a paper at the 72nd PSA Annual International Conference, Politics from the Margins, University of York, 10th-13th April 2022. This is the short version.
In Portugal, regardless of several democratic conquests in local government, there is a negative image associated with vices, corruption, and low levels of transparency in some aspects of fund management and contract assignments. Longevity of mayors has also been considered a problematic issue as well as a decrease in voters’ turnout. Recently important legal innovations have been introduced in local government: independent local lists were allowed in the form of citizen groups; mayors’ terms were limited to three, and a parity law was enforced in candidates lists. My aim is to discuss whether these innovations are actual contributions for local democracy.
Management of local affairs by volunteer citizens for the common good has a long tradition in Portugal. Local councils have been assembling in the Iberian Peninsula since early twelfth century. After the Carnation Revolution in 1974, and since the beginning of the democratic regime, a participative democracy was established, with administrative decentralization and municipal reinforcement. Only with citizen participation, whether directly or indirectly, may democracy fulfil its purpose. On the other hand, reduced civic participation and low turnouts contribute to democratic deficit.
In local government there is now a system of closed party lists and councillors are elected in proportion to electoral results in each of the 308 Portuguese municipalities. Elected representatives consist of a mayor and a group of councillors with executive powers, who administer their own revenues and are submitted to control by a municipal assembly. Local autonomy has become a reality, particularly concerning budgetary, management and construction issues.
Independent candidates, both for parliament and for local government, had been permitted in the 1976 Constitution, but only when they were included in party lists. Lists of citizen groups were permitted for town councils after the 1997 constitutional revision and the 2001 elections were the first to accept them. In a political party strong environment, citizen groups have been a negligible factor: their first result in 2001 was the election a mere 2 mayors (0.6 per cent of the municipalities). The 2013 elections brought about significant innovations, when 13 mayors were elected within citizen groups (4.2 per cent of the municipalities). Mayors elected within citizen groups have had political paths within the party system, including, in many cases, mayor in the same municipality. They possessed a pre-established social and political capital which granted them access to the election, beyond the usual barriers that independent candidates face. Recently, independent candidacies have been increasing in municipalities with higher levels of education and income, and are in effect challenging the local party system and winning in large urban centres. They have been a growing political force, which now occupies the fourth place in the political spectrum, with 19 mayors elected in 2021 (6.2 per cent of the municipalities).
Another innovation was the law that limited mayors’ terms to three (twelve years maximum in office, applied since the 2013 elections). From 1976 to 2013, 63 mayors (5 per cent) completed more than five mandates: they were called “dinosaurs” and two of them reached 37 years in office, or 10 mandates. The 2013 election resulted in the replacement of 63 per cent of mayors. There was a rejuvenation of mayors in Portuguese municipalities: from an average 63.5 years old for mayors who ended their terms in 2013 to 49 years old in newly elected mayors in the same year. Nevertheless, the new group revealed the same sociological characteristics as the one before and 64 per cent of them were already councillors for several mandates. There was no total replacement of local political elites in 2013 as there had been after the 1974 Revolution.
Turnouts in Portuguese local elections are quite low. After huge turnouts at the beginning of the democratic regime, in the 2013 local elections only 52.6 per cent of voters used their right to vote. However, turnouts have increased in municipalities where new candidates applied for office. Those were the ones with old mayors who had to leave. Turnouts were also higher in municipalities with citizen group candidacies, proving that legislative innovation, both regarding limitation of mandates and the introduction of new independent lists, may improve voters’ turnouts and political participation.
Regarding the gender issue, local government has still a long way to go. On the first 1976 elections 15 women were elected members of Parliament (5.7 per cent) and only 5 women were elected mayors (1.6 per cent). These figures have been growing, particularly since the introduction of a parity law in 2006, first applied in the 2009 general and local elections, which enforced a 33 per cent minimum for each gender in candidates’ lists. It was widely discussed, but it produced immediate effects in women’s election to MP positions. Not in local government, where women are indeed placed in candidates’ lists, abiding by the law, but not in mayor eligible positions.
Recent innovations in the Portuguese local government have definitely produced results, both regarding incentives to vote and citizen participation. This is true for central government initiatives in changing laws and for local government practices to encourage direct democracy. The introduction of independent candidacies has been a boost for rotation in local government and some local elites’ renewal, as well as heightening competition levels.
Almeida, Maria Antónia (2022). “Innovations in the Portuguese local government: contributions for local democracy”, Sociologia, Problemas e Práticas, 98, pp. 137-158. DOI: 10.7458/SPP20229819846.
Maria is a political science researcher at CIES, IUL – Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology, University Institute of Lisbon. Guest assistant professor at ISCTE-IUL. Master and PhD in Modern and Contemporary History. Two Post-Doctoral research projects on Political Science, focusing on Local Government. Specialized in political transitions, local government, memories and identities, rural and urban history, biographies. Author of twelve books, articles in scientific journals with peer review, book chapters and dictionary entries available online. Orcid : http://orcid.org/0000-0002-5583-3099.