The Assembly of the Republic

The Assembly of the Republic

According to the Portuguese constitution, the country's unicameral parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, "is the representative assembly of all Portuguese citizens." The constitution names the assembly as one of the country's organs of supreme authority and in Article 114 of the 1989 revised constitution charges it to exercise its powers both separately and interdependently with the president, the government, and the courts.

The assembly's power derives from its power to dismiss a government through a vote of no confidence, to impeach the president, to change the country's laws, and to amend the constitution. In addition to these key powers, the constitution grants to the Assembly of the Republic extensive legislative powers and substantial control over the budget, the right to authorize the government to raise taxes and grant loans, the power to ratify treaties and other kinds of international agreements, and the duty to approve or reject decisions by the president of the republic to declare war and make peace. The assembly also appoints many members of important state institutions, such as ten of the thirteen members of the Constitutional Court and seven of the sixteen members of the Higher Council of the Bench.

The constitution requires the assembly to quickly review and approve an incoming government's program. Parliamentary rules allow the assembly to call for committees of inquiry to examine the government's actions. Political opposition represented in the assembly has the power to review the cabinet's actions, even though it is unlikely that the actions can be reversed. For example, as few as ten members can request that the assembly ratify the government's decree-laws not belonging to the cabinet's exclusive jurisdiction. As little as one-fifth of the assembly can call for a motion of censure, although an absolute majority of the assembly is required to sustain the censure. Party groups can also call for interpellations that require debates about specific government policies.

The assembly consisted at first of 250 members, but the constitutional reforms of 1989 reduced its number to between 230 and 235. Members were elected by popular vote for legislative terms of four years from the country's constituencies (eighteen in mainland Portugal, one each for the autonomous regions of the Azores (Ašores in Portuguese) and Madeira, one for Portuguese living in Western Europe, and one for those living in the rest of the world). The number of voters registered in a constituency determined the number of its members in the assembly. Constituencies varied greatly in size; as many as three dozen representatives came from the Lisbon district and as few as three from some inland districts. As of the early 1990s, the autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira each sent five members to the assembly.

According to the constitution, members of the assembly represent the entire country, not the constituency from which they are elected. This directive was reinforced in practice by the strong role of political parties in regard to members of the assembly. Party leadership, for example, determined in which areas candidates were to run for office, thus often weakening members' ties to their constituencies. Moreover, members of the assembly were expected to vote with their party and to work within parliamentary groups based on party membership. Party discipline was strong, and insubordinate members could be coerced through a variety of means. A further obstacle to members' independence was that their bills first had to be submitted to the parliamentary groups, and it was these group leaders who set the assembly's agenda. The leader of the assembly, its president, was selected from the group leaders.

Assembly sessions were scheduled to run from mid-October to mid-June, but often extended beyond this period because of uncompleted business. When the body was not in session, it was represented by its Standing Committee, headed by the president of the assembly and composed of assembly members chosen to reflect the larger body's political composition. The committee monitored the president and the government and could call for meetings of the entire assembly if necessary.

Much of the assembly's work was done in committees, both permanent and ad hoc. Committee membership was to reflect the assembly party makeup, and members were usually not allowed to serve on more than two committees. The committees examined legislative proposals, most of which came from the government rather than from the assembly itself after a first reading in the assembly. Appropriate witnesses and expert testimony could be called; for certain types of legislation, labor legislation for example, concerned parties had to be heard. Once a committee approved a bill, the bill could receive a second reading and a plenary vote.

The Portuguese parliament did not enjoy much prestige initially. Its efficacy was impeded by the absence of adequate resources and staff and the lack of an efficient infrastructure of committees and subcommittees. This institutional inadequacy buttressed the traditional lack of respect the Portuguese felt for their governing institutions. To the public, the assembly personified democracy's defects in that it was inefficient, quarrelsome, splintered, and patronage-dominated. Its members were frequently seen as putting partisan interests ahead of the interests of the nation or of using their parliamentary positions to enhance their private careers and fortunes. In newspaper editorials and cartoons, parliament was often portrayed as buffoonish, silly, and irrelevant. Polls in 1978 and 1984 found that the Portuguese saw parliament as less important than the president, the prime minister, or the cabinet. It was thus not surprising that at times Portuguese democracy seemed insufficiently rooted. Yet, democracy had survived the unstable period after the revolution, and, despite all its problems, many Portuguese had come to see the Assembly of the Republic as indispensable to its preservation. In addition, reforms of the parliament's organization and practices, as well as increased numbers of skilled and experienced staffers, improved the body's efficiency.

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