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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Nepotism Divides Portuguese People from Politicians

Updated: Dec 17, 2022

In 2020, the then-Minister of Justice Francisca Van Dunem (November 2015-March 2022) approved a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (ENAC), the first document of its kind. Despite being placed under public consultation, it was never submitted nor discussed in parliament.


In Portugal, there is a disconnect between the populace and politicians as to the ethics of nepotism, according to a two-year study of the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation.

In Ethics and Integrity in Politics: Perceptions, Control, and Impact, a survey was one of several methods used to ascertain attitudes to corruption. Entitled “Situations of Potential Tolerance Toward Corruption”, it was distributed to elected officials and to citizens. One of the scenarios with the greatest disparity between the two groups of respondents was the following:

“A minister appointed his or her son-in-law as press officer.”

The populace responded 7.85 on a scale of 0 (not corruption) to 10 (corruption), while elected politicians attributed only 4.83. The researchers call the difference of 3.02 the gray zone of tolerance.

Elected officials tend to view corruption as a legally punishable offense. They look to the law as the sole guiding criterion. However, the people’s view of political ethics goes beyond the legal sphere. Citizens expect more, honesty being an outstanding attribute, reported the 242-page Ethics and Integrity in Politics (published in November and released on December 5, four days before International Anti-Corruption Day).

“If expected standards of ethical conduct displayed by both outsiders and insiders are discrepant, then such conflicting interpretations may diminish the levels of trust in political actors and, consequently, the levels of confidence and satisfaction in the democratic system as a whole.

“Contrasting perceptions of ethics from the political elite and citizens enable us to identify what needs to be requalified or, at least, improved in terms of political ethics regulation and supervision.

“Today, the mere delegation of this control to the judicial sphere or the scrutiny of external entities seems to no longer suffice.”

In 2019, with regard to nepotism:

“An anti-nepotism law was enacted following media exposure of the profusion of family links at the cabinet level, reaching up to 50 individuals and 20 families between ministers and staff. Besides husband and wife and father and daughter sitting in the Council of Ministers, special advisors or public officials had family links with party and cabinet ministers.

“The new rules, applicable to appoint cabinet advisors, support staff, senior officials and public managers forbid cabinet members to appoint relatives up to the fourth degree of an officeholder’s collateral line (belonging to the same ancestral stock but not in a direct line of descent), i.e., cousins. Except for one case, which led to the immediate resignation of the actors involved, the controversial appointments had not been made by a direct family member, but by colleagues, in a case of cross-nepotism, which the new law does not ban. In fact, the approval of such legal provisions might have had the opposite effect, i.e., legitimizing a practice that, despite being condemned by public opinion, is not unlawful.”

The study found evidence of “a contrast between the ‘political elite vs the public’, i.e., an insider vs outsider divide in terms of perceived ethical standards, thus confirming previous evidence that the political elite displays more tolerance for ethically dubious behavior than the general public.”

“Outsiders demand higher integrity standards from insiders but are likely to self-condone their own deviant conduct. Regarding the Portuguese case, Jalali (2008) concluded that citizens seem to hold higher moral expectations about their political representatives than they hold for themselves. This tendency to consider that politicians are vicious and ordinary citizens are virtuous was also identified by Johnston (1991) in the United Kingdom.”

According to Expresso (December 9):

“’Pulling strings’ for a friend or acquaintance, nominating a family member for a political position, may not always be illegal, but that does not stop it from generating controversy. The gray space in the law, which allows for the famous ‘jeitinhos’, is seen very differently by elected officials and voters.”

Opinion writer Clara Ferreira Alves said in Expresso (December 9):

“The parties are dynastic, the children of leaders have jobs, most of them public, and private, due to influence peddling. Some of these young people are qualified, but they didn’t have to make the effort or emigrate. As in everything there are exceptions, and there are successors to dynasties who work harder than anyone else to preserve what they inherited and not spoil the work of the founders. But the exception only confirms the rule.

"In Portugal, good jobs have their names on the chairs. Even in academia, and on merit, influence peddling exists and thrives.”

Ethics and Integrity in Politics includes case studies by academic experts of France, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Portugal: Four Decades of Reticent Progress:

“Since the early 1980s (after the 1974 Carnation Revolution), ethics regulation in Portuguese politics has been a cumulative process, with little disruption and a double-standard posture from political actors: on the one hand, pushing for more regulation and oversight and enforcement; on the other hand, resisting the adoption of any legal measures, and dismissing any responsibility on poor legislation and enforcement outcomes. . . .

“As a long list of examples illustrates, scandals and pressure from public opinion have triggered most ethics regulatory reforms. In 2016, a controversy over a private sector job of a then-MP and former minister – and most likely the detention of the former MP accused of corruption 18 months before – led to the creation of the Ad-Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Transparency in Public Office. The proceedings of this committee resulted, three years later, in the 2019 Transparency Package, including the first Code of Conduct for MPs. That same year, another scandal involving cabinet members who accepted travel, hospitality, and football tickets for the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship, forced the government to draft and adopt its Code of Conduct. . . .

“In 2019, as the outcome of the Ad-Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Transparency in Public Life, the parliament approved a Transparency Package. Some modifications were introduced to the regulation of conflicts of interest, incompatibilities and asset disclosure. The most significant ones related to political officeholders were: i) the merging of the previous three separate declarations into a single declaration of income, assets, incompatibilities and impediments; ii) the toughening of sanctions for non-compliance with declarative obligations, which may now amount to prison sentences; iii) the increase in the number of incompatibilities; iv) the extension of gifts and hospitality rules to all political and senior public officeholders, and the creation of a Transparency Entity.

“The Transparency Entity is an independent body that works under the auspices of the Constitutional Court and is responsible for assessing and supervising the single declaration of income, assets and interests. . . .

“By the beginning of 2022, the Transparency Entity was not yet operational.”

The study states that “reforms always seem to fall short in terms of robustness or actual scope, as lawmakers seem to refuse to go beyond the bare minimum to respond to public opinion and international organizations. The impact of the latter is limited, as most recommendations are ignored or not fully implemented.

“In 2019, Portugal was one of the least compliant countries with the recommendations of GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption established in 199 by the Council of Europe) concerning the fourth round of evaluation, especially with respect to parliament, as none of the recommendations were fully implemented, and 80% were only partially so.

“In other words, lawmakers feel the pressure and apply some international best practices to the extent they can claim to have ticked the box. However, they do not fully translate those practices. For instance, the 2019 Transparency Package created an autonomous Entity for Transparency inspired by other countries’ experiences, namely the French HATVP (the independent High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life created in 2013). However, the Portuguese version has no legal independence or powers, as it simply upgrades the status of the Constitutional Court’s administrative department that files and monitors interest and asset declarations.”

Respondents to the survey of Ethics and Integrity in Politics rated answers on a scale of 0 (not corruption) to 10 (corruption). The following are the other ”Situations of Potential Tolerance Toward Corruption”:

1. A mayor attributed through bidding the social housing construction to a firm from the region. The owner of this firm financially supported the mayor’s campaign. (5.49 populace/ 8.20 politicians);

2. A private bank was rescued under the supervision of the finance minister. Four years after he or she left office, the now ex-minister was invited to chair the bank’s board of directors. (6.17 populace/8.20 politicians);

3. A deputy received a payment from a law firm in exchange for clarification on several ongoing legislative matters in which this deputy participates as a legislator. (8.08 populace/ 8.53 politicians);

4. The president of a pharmaceutical regulator and family vacationed at the house of a friend, who is a businessman in this sector. The company at stake obtained authorization to carry out tests on a new medicine (7.67 populace/8.40 politicians);

5. A public employee speeded up some processes and received a bonus from the users she/he helped. (9.27 populace/8.75 politicians);

6. A prosecutor asked for 500 thousand euros from a businessman in return for filing a money-laundering investigation for the real estate sector. (9.90 populace/9.12 politicians);

7. A city council services director informally charged 5% of donations for each urban project approval. The money was deposited in a bank account of a charitable organization of which this director is president. (9.45/8.81);

8. A city councilor used employees and machines of the municipality to carry out restoration works on his/her farm. (8.87 populace/8.61 politicians);

9. An individual asked his sister, a nurse in a hospital, to speak to the doctor in order to anticipate his/her appointment, which has been on a 2-month waiting list. (5.29 populace/6.96 politicians);

10. The government accelerated the purchase of PPE (personal protective equipment) at prices above the market rate without a tender (by direct award), claiming the need for materials for public hospitals in order to combat COVID-19. (3.05 populace/ 7.13 politicians).

The authors of Ethics and Integrity in Politics are Susana Coroado, an associate researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Lisbon, and Luis de Sousa, founder of the first research network of anti-corruption agencies from 14 countries in Europe, Oceania, Latin America and Africa.

The Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation, which published the study, says that it addresses a loophole in Portuguese society: despite considerable discussion about the most diverse subjects in the public arena, the debate in Portugal always seems to be based on subjective opinions and personal perceptions rather than on solid data and careful research. Alexandre Soares dos Santos and his family started the foundation in 2009.

Francisco Manuel dos Santos was one of three partners who, in 1921, acquired Jeronimo Martins, beginning the dynasty, which still controls the food distribution company today. The firm operates in Portugal (Pingo Doce and Recheio), Poland (Biedronka and Hebe) and Colombia (Ara). It occupied the 49th position in the world ranking of 250 retailers in the 2022 annual study by Consulting Deloitte, one year higher than the previous year, with growth of 3.5% and consolidated revenues of US$20.860 million.

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