Portugal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2007

2007 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Anibal Cavaco Silva, a center-right, independent candidate, won the presidential election in January 2006 with just over 50 percent of the vote. In an April ruling on press freedom, an appeals court rejected an appeal by two journalists who claimed that a court order allowing authorities to examine their computers violated their right to protect sources. In October, the governing Socialists proposed holding a referendum to further legalize abortion; the country has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. A two-day strike by public sector workers in November crippled the country as schools and hospitals closed.

Portugal was proclaimed a republic in 1910, after King Manuel II abdicated during a bloodless revolution. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar became prime minister in 1932 and ruled the country as a fascist dictatorship until 1968, when his lieutenant, Marcello Caetano, replaced him. During the “Marcello Spring,” repression and censorship were relaxed somewhat, and a liberal wing developed inside the one-party National Assembly. In 1974, a bloodless coup by the Armed Forces Movement, which opposed the ongoing colonial wars in Mozambique and Angola, overthrew Caetano.

A transition to democracy began with the election of a Constitutional Assembly that adopted a democratic constitution in 1976. A civilian government was formally established in 1982 after a revision of the constitution brought the military under civilian control, curbed the president’s powers, and abolished the unelected Revolutionary Council. Portugal became a member of the European Economic Community (later the European Union [EU]) in 1986, and in early 2002, the euro replaced Portugal’s currency, the escudo. In 1999, Portugal handed over its last overseas territory, Macao, to the Chinese, ending a long history of colonial rule.

In February 2005 elections, the Socialists gained 120 of the 230 seats in Parliament, while the governing Social Democrats captured only 72. The Communist Party garnered 14 seats; the Popular Party, 12 seats; and the Left Bloc, 8 seats. The elections, which had been called more than a year early, ushered in Portugal’s fourth government in three years. Socialist leader and former environment minister Jose Socrates became prime minister, edging out Pedro Santana Lopes, who was in power for only seven months. Lopes had gained the office after his predecessor, Jose Manuel Barroso, left in July 2004 to head the European Commission.

Anibal Cavaco Silva, a center-right candidate, won the presidential election in January 2006 with just over 50 percent of the vote. The new president, who had been prime minister from 1985 to 1995, would have to “cohabitate” with the Socialist prime minister; it was the first time since Portugal became democratic that the president and prime minister hailed from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

In February 2006, a lesbian couple’s bid to get a marriage license was rejected by government officials on the grounds that Portuguese law only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman. The law may be challenged by the couple as a violation of the Portuguese constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In an April 2006 press freedom ruling, an appeals court rejected an appeal by two journalists who claimed that a court order allowing authorities to examine their computers violated their right to protect sources. The journalists had been accused of “illegal access to personal data” after they published a claim that Telecom Portugal was in possession of a list of telephone numbers of public officials, including the president’s, in connection with the Casa Pia child sex abuse case. The case emerged from a series of allegations in 2003 of child abuse in the long-established, state-run Casa Pia orphanages. Those accused of participating in the sex ring included a television presenter, a former top diplomat, and a former director of the Casa Pia children’s home network.

As part of an effort to liberalize the country’s laws on social and personal matters, the governing Socialists in October 2006 proposed holding a referendum to remove restrictions on abortion. The existing law, which was interpreted narrowly, allowed a woman to have an abortion only if her life was in danger, or if it was necessary for her mental or physical health, or in cases of rape, incest, or fetal impairment. The proposal was backed by the opposition center-right Social Democrats. The last referendum on the subject, held in 1998, was defeated due to the large numbers of people who boycotted it.

In November 2006, a two-day strike by public sector workers crippled the country, forcing the closure of schools and hospitals. The strike was called in order to protest a budget bill calling for cuts in the public sector workforce. The government was attempting to reduce the budget deficit from 4.6 percent of gross domestic product in 2006 to 3.7 percent in 2007, in keeping with EU mandates; similar strikes had occurred in 2005.

A Council of Europe report on human rights in June 2006 cited Portugal as a possible “stop-off” point for CIA-led rendition operations in Europe, in which suspected terrorists are flown to third countries for interrogations. There have been numerous allegations that these interrogations have involved torture.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Portugal is an electoral democracy. The 230 members of the unicameral legislature, the Assembly of the Republic, are elected every four years by popular vote, using a system of proportional representation. The president is popularly elected for a five-year term, with the possibility of a second term. The president receives advice from the Council of State, which includes six senior civilian officials, former presidents elected under the 1976 constitution, five members chosen by the Assembly, and five members selected by the president. While the president holds no executive powers, he can delay legislation with a veto and dissolve the Assembly to call early elections. The prime minister is nominated by the Assembly and the choice is confirmed by the president. The constitution was amended in 1997 to allow resident noncitizens to vote in presidential elections. The Portuguese have the right to organize and join political parties and other political groupings of their choice, except for fascist organizations. The autonomous regions of Azores and Madeira—two island groups in the Atlantic—are relatively independent, with their own political and administrative structures, and their own legislative and executive powers.

Portugal was ranked 26 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, and laws against insulting the government or the armed forces are rarely enforced. Commercial television has been making gains in recent years, providing serious competition for the inadequately funded public broadcasting channels. A court in April 2006 upheld an order allowing authorities to search the computers of two journalists. The reporters claimed that the search violated their right to protect sources. They had been accused of “illegal access to personal data” after they published a claim that Telecom Portugal was in possession of a list of phone numbers of public officials, including the president’s, in connection with the Casa Pia pedophile case. In February 2006, the computers of two journalists for the newspaper 24 Horas were seized by a criminal investigative court, which argued that the journalists had violated Article 44 of the criminal code for having “illegal access to personal data. Internet access in Portugal is not restricted.

Although the country is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and forbids religious discrimination. The Religious Freedom Act, which was adopted in 2001, provides religions that have been established in the country for at least 30 years (or recognized internationally for at least 60 years) with a number of benefits formerly reserved for the Catholic Church, such as tax exemptions, legal recognition of marriage and other rites, chaplain visits to prisons and hospitals, and respect for traditional holidays. Academic freedom is respected.

There is freedom of assembly and association, and citizens can participate in demonstrations and open public discussion. National and international nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups, operate in the country without government interference. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike for any reason, including political ones. Since 2005, public workers have staged large-scale strikes in response to the new government’s plans to cut public spending to bring the country’s budget deficit back in line with EU rules.

The constitution provides for an independent court system. However, a considerable backlog of pending trials has built up due to general inefficiency and a number of vacancies in the judicial system. Human rights groups have expressed concern about the number of human rights abuses in the country, including unlawful police shootings, deaths in police custody, and poor prison conditions that amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. A Justice Ministry report released in 2005 cited a number of problems in the country’s prison system, including overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and high rates of HIV/AIDS among prisoners. The prison population—as a percentage of the total population—is larger than the EU average.

The constitution guarantees equal treatment under the law and nondiscrimination. The government has taken a number of steps in the past few years to combat racism, including passing antidiscrimination laws and launching initiatives that seek to promote the integration of immigrants and Roma (Gypsies) into Portuguese society. However, there have been few prosecutions in cases involving racial or religious discrimination or the use of excessive force by the police toward immigrants and Roma. The constitution also forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation, but in February 2006, a lesbian couple’s bid to get married was rejected by the government on the grounds that Portuguese law only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.

The country is a destination and transit point for trafficked persons, particularly women from Eastern Europe and former Portuguese colonies in South America and Africa. According to the 2006 U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons, the Portuguese government does not comply with the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, putting the country on the report’s Tier 2 list. Although the government has made efforts to offer protection, support, and reintegration services to victims of trafficking, it has done little in terms of enforcement and prevention. The Casa Pia pedophilia case has also heightened awareness of child sex trafficking in the country.

Although domestic violence against women remains a problem in Portugal, few cases are brought to trial. In 2005, the government launched a nationwide awareness campaign against domestic violence. Abortion is illegal, except under certain circumstances, such as when the mother’s life or health is at risk, or when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. A referendum to ease those restrictions was proposed in October 2006 by the governing Socialists and supported by the opposition. In parliamentary elections in February 2005, 19.5 percent of the seats were won by women, about the same as in the previous elections in 2002.