Local Government

By James Plaskitt

As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise, we will begin to notice changes in the Algarve landscape: the appearance of many more political posters.

Local elections are due in the autumn. But what are these councils, what do they do, how are they elected, and can we take part?

Portugal’s local government structure long predates the 1974 Revolution. There are three layers to local government. The first, or lowest, level is the parish. This is by far the oldest, with the origins of most parishes stretching back to ecclesiastical boundaries set by the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. The parish council (freguesias) comprises an executive (junta) and an elected assembly, with all members serving a four-year term.

Parish council powers are now quite limited but still include markets, cemeteries, public works and voter registration. The second, or middle layer – and currently the most important – is the municipality (concelhos or municipios). Again, the origins of this layer stretch far back into the twelfth century, but in their most recent form, Portugal’s 308 municipalities are based loosely on the model of France’s post-revolutionary departments.

The municipal council is headed by a directly elected executive body (câmara) whose membership also includes the presidents of the parishes which fall within that municipality. After the four-yearly elections, the head of the winning party becomes the president or mayor.

The municipalities have a wide range of functions, including local utilities, infrastructure, transport, schools, leisure, social housing, environmental protection, roads, municipal policing and planning.

We have seven municipalities here at the western end of the Algarve. The smallest are Vila do Bispo, Aljezur and Monchique, all with 15 elected members, then followed by Lagos, Portimão, Silves and Lagoa, each with 21 elected members. After the last cycle of elections, the membership of all municipalities was dominated by the Portuguese Socialist Party, except for Silves which is led by a coalition of Portuguese Communists and Greens.

The third, or top layer, of local government is supposed to be regional government. Supposed, because it does not yet exist. It is envisaged in the 1976 constitution but has been a matter of political debate ever since. In the absence of any formal regional government for the Algarve, we have instead an inter-municipal arrangement, set up in 2014, which provides a forum for the Algarve’s 16 municipalities to co-operate on issues such as regional economic development and infrastructure. The ‘region’ is still referred to as ‘Faro’ – which explains why some websites we use to access services still ask us to check ‘Faro’ when logging in!

So local government has a variety of important functions and most of us have regular engagement with it, as well as contributing through our local taxes. Nevertheless, Portugal remains one of the EU’s more centralised states, with the national government still wielding heavy influence over what happens in the localities. According to an OECD survey conducted in 2019, local government expenditure accounts for just 6% of Portugal’s GDP and 13% of total public spending.

The method for electing councillors – and the national Parliament – is the d’Hondt system. Victor d’Hondt was a nineteenth-century Belgian lawyer and mathematician who was an ardent proponent of proportional representation. So ardent that he devised his own system. Today it is used in 16 other European countries, as well as Portugal. A simple explanation of how it works is not easy! The political parties submit closed lists of candidates. Voters place an ‘X’ by the party list of their choice. When all votes for the parties are counted, a divisor is applied to determine an electoral quotient. The quotient is the minimum number of votes required to secure the last available seat. Parties are awarded seats according to how many times they can achieve, or exceed, the quotient after the application of the divisor. I told you it wasn’t easy. The system has the merit of securing seats in proportion to votes but has the disadvantage of prohibiting truly local or ward/constituency representation.

So that’s what happens to your vote once you have cast it. How do you get the vote? If you are a foreign national living in Portugal and you have residency, you are entitled to vote in these local elections. Get an appointment at your local freguesia and take your residency document, your NIF document showing the same address as your residency paper and your personal ID. This will secure you a voter registration number. The local elections are likely to be held on 26 September, and cannot be later than 10 October. Voter registration closes 60 days before the poll, so assuming the earlier date, you have until 28 July to register. Even if you register months before the vote, you won’t forget about the election – the spreading forest of party posters will remind you!


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