‘Operation Influencer’ removed a sitting Prime Minister from office for the first time in the history of Portugal. As prosecutors admit mistakes, many are asking: Was the downfall of Portugal’s prime minister necessary?
The Portuguese political tsunami started a week ago, when two people close to current former Prime Minister Antonio Costa were arrested.
He was accused of irregularities in the concession of lithium reserves and green hydrogen projects.
A few hours later, Costa himself hastily announced his resignation, triggering snap elections – the second in two years.
The Prime Minister told the press, “I am leaving office with a clear conscience.” Portuguese society seemed stunned, while European socialists mourned the death of a politician elected to a high EU post.
This was the beginning of ‘Operation Influencer’, an investigation that removed a sitting Prime Minister from office for the first time in the history of Portugal.
However, the investigation began to unravel within days, when Portuguese prosecutors admitted that they had confused the name of Prime Minister António Costa with Economy Minister António Costa Silva in the wiretap transcript.
But what other mistakes happened in the operation that ended with the downfall of the Prime Minister?
What is happening in Portugal?
The solid parliamentary majority enjoyed by Antonio Costa’s Socialists was not enough to preserve the government.
Last Tuesday morning, a political shock shook the southern European country.
Prosecutors ordered the arrest of two members of Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s inner circle, his chief of staff Vitor Escaria and businessman Diogo Lacerda Machado.
Lacerda and Costa have been good friends since studying law together in Lisbon. When Costa became Prime Minister in 2015, Lacerda Machado was able to stay with her friend.
According to Portuguese media, investors had a habit of hiring Lacerda Machado’s lawyer to learn more about the government’s internal conspiracies.
Costa is being investigated for influence peddling, embezzlement and fraud. According to his own Chief of Staff, he is said to have opened the concession files for mining operations.
In an institutional speech last weekend, the former prime minister explained that ‘nothing Lacerda Machado has done has ever been done with my permission, a prime minister has no friends.’
“Throughout his administration, Costa stuck to the principle of non-resignation in the case of members of his government,” says Paula Espírito Santo, professor of social and political sciences at the University of Lisbon.
“He kept them in until the last minute, until the pressure became too much. But when it came down to it, he immediately resigned, he did not follow the principle,” he told Euronews.
In total, police conducted more than 42 searches, including at Costa’s office in the São Bento Palace and the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment.
During the search, envelopes containing more than €75,000 in cash were found in the office of António Costa’s chief of staff, Vitor Escaria, in the Prime Minister’s official residence.
The other three people arrested in the case are the mayor of Sciences, Nuno Mascarenhas, and two administrators of the company Start Campus, whose project to produce green hydrogen and build a data center in Sciences is under investigation.
Portugal’s Infrastructure Minister Joao Galamba also resigned on Monday.
Why has the prosecution been weakened?
During the early days of the investigation, the Portuguese Public Prosecutor’s Office made a mistake that has since complicated their case.
He admitted that he had confused Economy Minister António Costa Silva with the country’s Prime Minister António Costa in a wiretapped transcript of a corruption scandal.
Lacerda Machado’s lawyer told the press, “It was (Diogo) Lacerda Machado who informed the Public Prosecutor’s Office that indeed a mistake had been made, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office had to accept it.”
The lawyer said, “Of course, if these mistakes are unintentional then they are not serious. Whether it was intentional or not, I cannot condemn the Public Prosecutor’s Office.”
According to Professor Espirito Santo, in the public eye, these mistakes undermine the investigation, but at the end of the day the process is what matters.
“Nevertheless, this is certainly not good for the image of the Portuguese Public Prosecutor’s Office, which should be more careful in a case of this importance,” she adds.
Not only have the defendants refuted the prosecution’s case, but so has the judge in charge of the case.
Judge Nuno Dias Costa has released the five detainees, saying he believes they should not be investigated for corruption or fraud, as he shows only signs of influence peddling.
However, he ordered them to remain in the country and surrender their passports. Lacerda Machado must also post bail of €150,000 within 15 days.
Dias Costa thus rejected the prosecution’s request to remand into custody two main players in the case: the Prime Minister’s former chief of staff and Lacerda Machado.
The decision, which compounds mistakes made by public officials, has provoked criticism from a part of society that wonders whether this political turmoil was necessary.
“The Speaker of Parliament also stressed that they should clarify what is happening, because there is a lot of talk that they are tarnishing the public image of justice,” says the political scientist.
“There has been a lot of criticism of this process, especially from the Socialist Party. Other parties are quiet because now they have a chance in the next elections,” she adds.
End of Costa’s European dream?
Before this month’s scandal, Prime Minister Costa had been selected for a senior leadership post with the EU in Brussels.
Europe’s socialists, who were losing strength on the Old Continent after each election, had applauded the parliamentary majority won by Costa in Portugal.
So they wanted the former prime minister to get a powerful EU job, where he could live with Josep Borrell, another socialist and the head of European diplomacy.
“It is not easy to know what will happen to Costa. Until this moment we thought he had lost all hope, but the more we know about the investigation, the more some people regret what has happened,” says Professor Espirito Santo.
“More and more voices are saying that he should not have resigned if there was not enough evidence. So they are blaming him and asking why he hastened to take this decision.