António Costa, the “impossible” socialist who managed to turn around an electoral defeat with an unprecedented left-wing pact and reached an absolute majority when no one expected it, ended almost eight years as prime minister this Tuesday due to an investigation for corruption and prevarication.
In the middle of his third term, with a majority that put him on track to become the longest-serving head of government in Portuguese democracy if he served his term until 2026, a criminal investigation has ended up putting an end to those plans.
A “fireproof” politician
“To politics what belongs to politics, to justice what belongs to justice,” he used to repeat if any suspicion hovered over a member of his Government.
In the end, it was justice that put an end to Costa’s tenure in the Government, often described as “incombustible” and which his political rivals could not handle. The socialist, however, insisted today that he has not committed any illegal act and that he has a “very clear” conscience.
António Luís Santos da Costa (Lisbon, 1961) was going to celebrate eight years at the head of the Government on November 25, after a long career in politics. Son of a communist writer from the former Portuguese colony of Goa (India) and a journalist, he drank politics at home and was already posting posters for the Socialist Party at the age of 14.
He studied law and began his career as a lawyer in the office of former president Jorge Sampaio, sponsored by the greats of Portuguese socialism, such as António Guterres and Mário Soares. He was a minister with Guterres and with José Sócrates, but his big moment came in 2007, when he regained the Lisbon City Council for the socialists and gained fame to climb to the top of the party.
To achieve this, he had to use his good negotiating skills and make an agreement with the left, in a premonition of what he would achieve years later to take charge of the Government of Portugal.
In 2015, despite coming second in the elections behind the then prime minister, the conservative Pedro Passos Coelho, he closed an unprecedented pact with the Left Bloc and the communists.
That “geringonça”, as the alliance was known, allowed him to endure the four years of the legislature. In 2019, the divorce came. Costa improved his results at the polls and, despite not having an absolute majority, decided to dispense with his partners and govern alone, negotiating law by law.
The solution worked for half a term, until he failed to push through the Budgets for 2022 and new elections were called. Unexpectedly, the socialist achieved a historic absolute majority that predicted a peaceful third term.
But, also against the odds, this last Government was marked by more than a dozen resignations, many of them involved in scandals and even legal proceedings.
Costa was accused of the “wear and tear” of three consecutive terms, analysts noted, and in recent times he has also been involved in tensions with the president, the conservative Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Investigated for possible prevarication
Hours after the news broke that he was being investigated for possible prevarication, active and passive corruption and influence peddling in lithium and hydrogen businesses – about which, he stated, Costa himself found out this very Tuesday – he presented his resignation to Rebelo de Sousa.
The resignation creates a mystery about Costa’s future. Known and appreciated among European leaders after almost eight years at the head of the Portuguese Executive, in Portugal it was taken for granted that he would try to fulfill his aspirations of achieving a great European position when he left São Bento. The investigation could curtail those plans.