Portugal | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Portugal held the rotating European Union (EU) presidency for the latter half of 2007, focusing on economic reform and the drafting of the Treaty of Lisbon, which would replace the defeated EU constitution. In April, the president signed a law legalizing voluntary termination of pregnancies for the first time in Portugal. Separately, the parliament in September overrode a presidential veto to enact the Journalist Statute, which endangered journalists’ protection of confidential sources, fair pay, and control over their work.

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, or EU) in 1986, and in early 2002, the EU’s euro replaced Portugal’s currency, the escudo. In 1999, Portugal handed over its last colonial territory, Macao, to the People’s Republic of China.

In February 2005 elections, the Socialist Party took 120 of the 230 seats in parliament, while the governing Social Democrats captured only 72. They were followed by the Communist Party with 14 seats, the Popular Party with 12, and the Left Bloc with 8. 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, replacing 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 who had served as prime minister from 1985 to 1995, won the 2006 presidential election, marking the first time in Portugal’s recent history that the president and prime minister hailed from opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Portugal held the rotating EU presidency beginning in July 2007. Many countries looked to Portugal to push for uniform immigration laws for the EU member states, which were not drafted by year’s end. Portugal also oversaw the drafting of a new treaty, known as the Treaty of Lisbon, that replaced the proposed EU constitution, which had been rejected in 2005. The bulk of the new document was the same as the failed constitution, with mostly symbolic changes.

As part of a government effort to liberalize the country’s laws on social and personal matters, the parliament in March passed a law removing restrictions on abortion in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, and the president approved the measure in April. A majority of referendum voters had endorsed the proposal in February, but voter turnout fell below 50 percent, rendering the poll legally invalid; the government argued that it nevertheless gave an indication of the people’s wishes. The previous law, which was interpreted narrowly, had 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 new law allowed voluntary termination of pregnancy, but it was met with resistance by a majority of doctors, and hospitals and medical centers remained ill-equipped for abortion procedures.

In September, the parliament overrode a presidential veto to enact a law known as the Journalist Statute. According to the European Federation of Journalists, the new law would require journalists to hand over confidential information and disclose sources in criminal cases “on the grounds that it would be difficult to obtain information by other means.” The law also allowed employers to use or alter material provided by staff journalists in any manner for 30 days after initial publication, without providing additional compensation.

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 using a system of proportional representation. The president, elected for up to two five-year terms, 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—have their own political structures with legislative and executive powers.

Portugal was ranked 28 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. In April 2007, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report urging Portugal to crack down on bribery of foreign officials in international business transactions. Soon after the release of the report, two Portuguese civil servants were arrested on bribery charges, and three foreign businesses remained under investigation for offering bribes to other civil servants at year’s end.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, and laws against insulting the government or the armed forces are rarely enforced. The inadequately funded public broadcasting channels now face serious competition from commercial television outlets. In September 2007, the parliament overrode a presidential veto to enact the Journalist Statute, which threatens source confidentiality and fair pay for the reuse of journalists’ work. 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. Despite a large-scale strike on May 30 that froze much of the country’s public sector, the government in 2007 passed new labor laws that reduced the number of leave days from 25 to 23 and made it easier for employers to fire workers under the concept of “failure to adapt.”

The constitution provides for an independent court system. However, staff shortages and inefficiency have contributed to a considerable backlog of pending trials. Human rights groups have expressed concern about unlawful police shootings, deaths in police custody, and poor prison conditions. 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 inmates. 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 to combat racism, including passing antidiscrimination laws and launching initiatives to promote the integration of immigrants and Roma (Gypsies). In June 2007, the government launched its first official website aimed at combating prejudice against the Roma. Lawmakers passed a new immigration law in May that will facilitate family reunification and legalization for immigrants in specific circumstances, such as those who applied under “immigration amnesty.”

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. Approximately 5,000 Brazilian women are trafficked into Portugal for sexual exploitation each year. Penal reforms in September 2007 criminalized sex trafficking for the first time and allow for up to 12 years in prison if convicted. The Casa Pia pedophilia case, which involved extensive sexual abuse at state-run orphanages, has also heightened awareness of child sex trafficking in the country.

Domestic violence against women remains a problem, and few cases are brought to trial. Over 8,000 cases were reported in the first half of 2007. In 2005, the government launched a nationwide awareness campaign on domestic violence. Most restrictions on abortion were lifted in April 2007, though many hospitals remained ill-equipped to deal with requests for the procedure. 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.