Portugal began to have representative governments in 1820, which is when the monarchy ceased to be absolute. However, in the space of what is now almost two centuries, there have been various periods when public freedoms - notably the freedoms of expression, assembly and association - were subject to restrictions. Because it lasted for nearly half a century and because it was not so very long ago, perhaps the most significant of these periods was the Salazar regime, which ended on 25 April 1974. One year later, the country held the first elections in which every Portuguese man and woman aged 18 or over was able to vote freely.
Portugal made remarkable political progress after 1974. It replaced the authoritarian-corporatist regime of Salazar, and, as of the beginning of the 1990s, the country appeared to have successfully made the transition to democracy. Although political and governmental problems remained, the government was popularly elected, it functioned according to the constitution, and, since the mid-1980s, had done so with notable stability. The successful transition to democracy in the Iberian Peninsula since the mid-1970s (in Spain, as well as in Portugal) may be thought of as one of the more significant political transformations of the late twentieth century.
The Constitution of the Portuguese Republic was passed in 1976, and since then has been amended several times. The Constitution is the country's supreme law. It enshrines the fundamental rights that pertain to citizens, the essential principles that govern the Portuguese State, and the major political guidelines with which the latter's entities and organs must comply. It also lays down the rules for organising political power. In other words, it establishes the structure of the state and defines the competences of the main entities that exercise sovereign power (the President and the Assembly of the Republic, the Government, and the Courts), and regulates the way in which they relate to one another. All the other laws must respect the Constitution - if they don't, they are unconstitutional and thus invalid.
The four main branches of the national government are the presidency, the prime minister and Council of Ministers (the government), the Assembly of the Republic (the parliament), and the judiciary. The 1976 constitution is on its fifth revision and a sixth is likely within a decade, suggesting that much of the text is still being interpreted (for example, there was considerable uncertainty about whether the parliamentary votes over the Azores Statute required a simple or two-thirds majority). So debates over the balance of power between President and Parliament may sap some political energy, but they are also necessary to long-term stability. In fact, Portugal's post-dictatorship institutions purposely have these tensions built in to avoid concentrating power in any one person.
The President of the Republic is the senior figure in the state hierarchy. His/her functions are to guarantee national independence and unity and the operation of Portugal's democratic institutions, and to command the Armed Forces. The President of the Republic is directly elected by all Portuguese citizens. Candidates for the Presidency must be born Portuguese and be at least 35 years old. The President of the Republic can only serve two consecutive terms, which are for five years each.
The Portuguese presidency does not wield the executive power of the U.S. presidency, but the position is not ceremonial. The president also is commander in chief of the armed forces. Presidential powers include confirming the prime minister and Council of Ministers; dismissing the prime minister; dissolving the assembly to call early elections; vetoing legislation, which may be overridden by the assembly; and declaring a state of war or siege. The Council of State, a presidential advisory body, is composed of six senior civilian officers, former presidents elected under the 1976 constitution, five members chosen by the assembly, and five selected by the president.
The Assembly of the Republic is a unicameral body composed of 230 deputies. The Assembly of the Republic is the national parliament, and is composed of Members who are elected to represent the country's citizens. The Portuguese people elect the Members of the Assembly of the Republic to represent them at the national level. This means that although the Members are elected for constituencies, they represent the whole country and not the constituency for which they were individually elected. Any Portuguese citizen can stand for election to the Assembly of the Republic, but must do so on a list put forward by a political party. The number of seats allocated to each party is proportional to the number of votes it receives in each constituency. Elections to the Assembly of the Republic take place every four years. However, under certain conditions, which are laid down in the Constitution, the Assembly can be dissolved, in which case elections are held early. In legislative elections the Portuguese people vote for the party which they feel ought to be called on to form the Government, or which they think will represent them best.
The government is headed by the prime minister, who is nominated by the assembly for confirmation by the president. The prime minister then names the Council of Ministers. A new government is required to present its governing platform to the assembly for approval.
The Government conducts the country's general policy and directs the Public Administration, which implements the State's policy. The Government possesses legislative, administrative and political functions, which include proposing laws (on the matters which the Constitution places within the competence of the Assembly of the Republic), drafting laws (in the areas for which competence pertains to the Government itself) and drawing up regulations designed to make it possible to actually implement laws. In addition, the Government also represents the Portuguese State, particularly on the international level, negotiating with other states or international organisations.
Following elections to the Assembly of the Republic or the resignation or dismissal of the previous Government, the President of the Republic consults all the parties with seats in the Assembly and then invites a political figure to form a Government. The Prime Minister, who is appointed by the President of the Republic, then invites the other members of the Government to join it. The President of the Republic installs the Prime Minister and the Government, which then draws up its Programme and presents it to the Assembly of the Republic. The Programme is a document that sets out the Government's main political guidelines, together with the measures it intends to adopt or to propose to the Assembly.
The head of the Government is the Prime Minister, who coordinates the work of the different ministers and represents the Government in its relations with the President and the Assembly of the Republic. The Government takes its main decisions in the Council of Ministers.
Each Government's mandate ends when a new Government takes office, be it when the latter has been formed following elections to the Assembly of the Republic, or when its formation is the result of a realignment of forces in the parliament. Whenever the legislature (i.e. the period from one election to the next, which corresponds to the life of an Assembly of the Republic with a given composition) or the Prime Minister's term of office ends, a new Government is formed.
The Government can fall when: it asks the Assembly of the Republic for a confidence motion and the Assembly rejects it; the Assembly passes a motion of no confidence in the Government by an absolute majority; the Assembly does not pass the Government's Programme; the President of the Republic dismisses the Government in order to ensure the normal operation of Portugal's democratic institutions; or the Prime Minister resigns, dies or becomes physically or mentally incapable of performing his/her functions.
In a number of matters, the Government is responsible to the President of the Republic - via the Prime Minister - and to the Assembly of the Republic - to which it accounts for its political actions, for example during the fortnightly debates in which the Prime Minister answers Members' questions.
The core of the political decision-making process is the Prime Minister and individual secretaries of state and ministers. The president does not intervene in the daily business of the government, and the Parliament has neglected its legislative functions, and is perceived as a downgraded institution. More than 80% of the legislation approved by the Parliament is prepared by the government and endorsed automatically by the Parliamentary majority.
This began to change in 2009, after the September elections in which Socialist PM Socrates lost the absolute majority in Parliament he had enjoyed for four years. The Socialists chose to govern as a minority rather than enter into a coalition with the opposition. Opposition parties challenged the parliamentary leadership of the Socialist Party (PS) by passing a series of resolutions opposed by the Socialists.
The national Supreme Court is the court of last appeal. Military, administrative, and fiscal courts are designated as separate court categories. A nine-member Constitutional Tribunal reviews the constitutionality of legislation. The courts administer justice and are the only unelected seat of power. The courts are independent of the other entities that exercise power. Judges are not only independent, but also enjoy security of tenure (they cannot be removed from their post) and immune from personal liability (so that they can decide freely, in accordance with their conscience, and without any duty of accountability to other entities that exercise power). The courts' decisions override those of any other authority.
The Azores and Madeira Islands have constitutionally mandated autonomous status. The Azores and Madeira have a political/administrative regime of their own. This is justified by their geographic particularities and based on their populations' wish for self-government. A regional autonomy statute promulgated in 1980 established the Government of the Autonomous Region of the Azores; the Government of the Autonomous Region of Madeira operates under a provisional autonomy statute in effect since 1976.
The regional government organs - regional assemblies and governments - possess broad powers to define their region's policies. This does not apply in the fields of foreign policy, defence and internal security, the competence for which pertains to the entities and organs of the Republic. The regional assemblies are elected using the same method as that applicable to the Assembly of the Republic, and the regional governments are formed in the same way as the national Government.
Continental Portugal is divided into 18 districts, each headed by a governor appointed by the Minister of Internal Administration. Local power is exercised by local authorities - i.e. municipalities and parishes. Local authority elections currently involve the election of each municipal council, municipal assembly and parish assembly. Representation in municipal councils, municipal assemblies and parish assemblies is proportional - i.e. each organ includes representatives of every political force (party, coalition of parties, or group of citizens) that obtained enough votes. In this case it is not only parties and coalitions that can put forward candidates for election, but also groups of citizens organised into independent lists.
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