Portuguese set to turn page on Antonio Costa era

Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa resigned as Tuesday in the wake of a corruption scandal involving energy contracts (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA)
Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa resigned as Tuesday in the wake of a corruption scandal involving energy contracts (PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA)

Portugal's political parties were preparing Wednesday for a landscape without Antonio Costa, who had been prime minister since 2015 but quit suddenly the day prior when he was implicated in a corruption probe.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the conservative president met with the heads of the main political parties starting Wednesday as he decides whether to ask a party leader to try to form a new government or to dissolve parliament and call for new elections.

The main opposition parties on the left and right have already urged early elections.

"We need to start a new cycle, by giving the Portuguese people back their voice," said Luis Montenegro, president of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the main right-wing party.

The Socialist Party, which has an absolute majority in parliament, defended a solution involving "the appointment of a new prime minister", according to party leader Carlos Cesar who spoke after meeting the president.

In the event of elections, the Socialists would prefer them to be held in March, which would give the party time to find a successor to Costa.

Rebelo de Sousa will meet Thursday with the Council of State, an advisory body that includes former presidents, before addressing the nation in the evening to announce his decision.  

The prime minister's resignation sent off shock waves in Portugal, with newspaper headlines speaking of the "end of a cycle", "the earthquake of November 7", and a "political bomb."

"Antonio Costa has entered Portuguese political history as the first acting head of government implicated in a criminal affair," the Publico daily wrote Wednesday.

- 'Influence peddling' -

Tuesday began with a series of searches in ministries, lawyers' offices, and the residence of the prime minister, before leading several hours later to Costa's surprise resignation.

He took his decision after learning that his name was cited in an investigation into the approval of a hydrogen plant south of Lisbon and a lithium mine in the north of the country.

The probe involves suspicions of "misappropriation, active and passive corruption by political figures, and influence peddling", according to prosecutors.

Costa is himself suspected of intervening "to unblock procedures" in the approval process, and will be the object of a separate investigation, the prosecutors said.

"In these circumstances, I evidently had to resign," Costa told a press conference Tuesday, insisting he had done nothing illegal.

After winning an absolute majority in January 2022 -- a rare feat among Europe's leftist parties -- Costa has seen his popularity decline after a series of scandals. 

The departure of the 62-year-old opens a battle for leadership within his Socialist Party.

The investigation also led to the indictments of Infrastructure Minister Joao Galamba and the arrest of Costa's Chief of Staff Vitor Escaria and his advisor Diogo Lacerda Machado.