Portugal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Prime Minister Antonio Guterres resigned at the end of 2001 after his ruling Socialist Party suffered significant losses in municipal elections. The general election held on March 17, 2002, two years earlier than scheduled, produced a narrow victory for the Social Democratic Party (PSD), Portugal's center-right party, ending six years of Socialist Party government. However, the PSD fell well short of an absolute majority, which forced it to form a governing alliance with the small Popular Party, a populist, right-of-center party. The PSD won 40.1 percent of the vote and 105 seats in the 230-seat parliament, compared with 37.9 percent of the vote and 96 seats for the Socialist Party. The Popular Party took 8.8 percent of the vote and 14 seats.

Formerly a great maritime and colonial empire, Portugal ended its monarchy in a bloodless revolution in 1910. The republic, plagued by chronic instability and violence, ended in a military revolt in 1926. A fascist dictatorship under Antonio Salazar lasted from 1932 to 1968. In 1968, the dying Salazar was replaced by his lieutenant, Marcello Caetano. During what is now termed the "Marcello spring," repression and censorship were relaxed somewhat and a liberal wing developed inside the one-party national assembly. In 1974, Caetano was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the Armed Forces Movement, which opposed the ongoing colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola. A transition to democracy then began with the election of a constitutional assembly that adopted a democratic constitution in 1976. The constitution was revised in 1982 to bring the military under civilian control, curb the president's powers, and abolish an unelected "Revolutionary Council." In 1989, a second revision of the constitution provided for further privatization of nationalized industries and state-owned media.

The election of the Socialist Party's Jorge Sampaio as president in 1996 marked the end of a conservative era in which Portugal benefited economically but failed to satisfy voters' eagerness for social change. The political reversal in 2002 will alter little the country's social policies, though it will press ahead with more economic liberalization. The new government has pledged to reform labor regulations and introduce a new social security law. Employers are reluctant to employ people with permanent job contracts, which have become too difficult and costly to rescind. High levels of job protection also undermine labor mobility, which is partly to blame for the country's low level of productivity.

Political scandal emerged in 2002 as Popular Party leader and defense minister Paulo Portas came under investigation for financial improprieties. Portas has avoided criminal charges, but his continued presence in the cabinet risks undermining the government. Nevertheless, the prime minister has so far supported Portas. Tensions will certainly increase among the coalition parties if the scandal drags on into 2003, and the PSD may well seek to distance itself from the PP.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Portuguese can change their government democratically. In direct, competitive elections, voters, including a large number of Portuguese living abroad, select both the president and members of parliament. The president, who also commands the country's armed forces, is elected to a five-year term. The president receives advice from the Council of State, which includes six senior civilian officials, former presidents, five members chosen by the legislature, and five chosen by the president. While the president holds no executive powers, he can delay legislation with a veto or insist on a two-thirds majority to approve some laws. The country's unicameral legislature includes up to 235 deputies. With the exception of fascist organizations, political association is unrestricted. Members of small, extreme-right groups, however, have run candidates for public office without interference. In 1997, the constitution was amended to allow immigrants to vote in presidential elections.

Portugal introduced what was considered the most liberal immigration legislation in the EU in August 2001. Workers who entered the country illegally or on tourist visas are now able to legalize their status. A shortage of 22,000 laborers contributed to the legislation. Workers can stay in Portugal indefinitely by legalizing their status and obtaining either permanent residency or citizenship. They can then move freely to other EU countries. There are an estimated 200,000 foreigners in the country, representing 1.8 percent of the population. Anti-immigrant violence appears rare.

Portuguese courts are autonomous and operate only under the restraints of established law and the constitution. They include a constitutional court, a supreme court of justice, and judicial courts of the first and second instance. Separate administrative courts address administrative and tax disputes. They are generally noted for their adherence to traditional principles of independent jurisprudence, but inefficient bureaucratic organization has created an enormous backlog of cases in the system.

Freedoms of speech and assembly are respected with few exceptions. Although the law forbids insults directed at the government or the armed forces and statements intended to undermine the rule of law, the state has never prosecuted cases under this provision. Human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized Portugal for the occasional beating of prisoners and other detainees. In general, prison conditions are poor.

The print media, which are owned by political parties and private publishers, are free and competitive. Until 1990, all television and radio media, with the exception of the Roman Catholic radio station, were state owned. Although television broadcasting is dominated by the state-owned Radioteleivisao Portuguesa, two independent stations have operated in recent years. Despite the vocal press, in September 2002 a court charged a journalist for declining to reveal his sources related to a drug case, and the police held him in custody for several hours.

Workers have the right to strike and are represented by competing Communist and non-Communist organizations. In recent years, the two principal labor federations, the General Union of Workers and the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers Intersindical, have charged "clandestine" companies with exploiting child labor in the impoverished north.

The status of women has improved with economic modernization. Women account for two-thirds of university graduates. More than 60 percent of women are employed, accounting for 40 percent of Portugal's doctors, judges, and lawyers. Despite these gains, the average pay for women remains 22 percent lower than for men, according to the Ministry of Labor. Women also remain underrepresented in politics and the executive ranks of business. A 1997 constitutional amendment promoting equality in politics has yet to be translated into legislation that would establish minimum quotas. Portugal's constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the government respects this right in practice.