Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

Portugal Is Facing Two Different Realities

  • Government is dealing with aftermath of fires that killed 100
  • Booming Lisbon hosts Web Summit as PM is urged to look inland

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa is leading a country facing two very different realities.

In one, the premier will from Monday host the Web Summit in a revamped riverfront area of Lisbon, a thriving city that draws thousands of tourists and rising numbers of French and Chinese property investors. In the other, he’s having to deal with vast swathes north of the capital that were scorched three weeks ago by forest blazes that left dozens dead.

Antonio Costa

Photographer: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

The Web Summit, being held for a second year in Lisbon, will showcase a forward-looking face of Portugal as Costa makes opening remarks on Tuesday and welcomes other speakers at the Nov. 6-9 event, including Oracle Corp. Co-Chief Executive Officer Mark Hurd, European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

The discussions on technology will contrast sharply with Costa’s focus in the last few weeks: wildfires that left more than 100 dead in a four-month period, with televisions showing footage of desperate families grappling with garden hoses to save their homes. In June, forest blazes left more than 60 dead, some of them in homes and in cars as they attempted to flee.

“Part of the country, namely the metropolitan country, so-called coastal Portugal, which possibly wasn’t awake, has now awakened to this reality,” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said on Oct. 21 during a visit to Pampilhosa da Serra, an area affected by the fires, according to news agency Lusa. “It’s essential to look at this reality so that there aren’t various countries at various speeds.”

Underestimated Fires

Costa, 56, who’s halfway through a four-year term in office, accepted Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa’s resignation earlier this month after hundreds of wildfires spread across the country on Oct. 15, killing more than 40 people. The government has assumed responsibility and at a weekend cabinet meeting announced plans to hire more firefighters and increase use of the military to face the blazes.

Villagers help estinguish a wildfire in Abrantes.

Photographer: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP via Getty Images

There was an “underestimation” of the risks of forest fires in the first two weeks of October, Costa said in an interview with TVI on Oct. 29, sitting with firefighting trucks and other equipment around him in one of the regions in northern Portugal that was most affected by the blazes.

The government should look “at these people, at their suffering, with even greater attention than the attention deserved by those who have the powers of demonstrating in Lisbon,” President Rebelo de Sousa said in a televised speech on Oct. 17 following the latest wildfires.

Costa’s government has tried to address the challenges facing the more rural, aging and thinly-populated inland regions, with measures including funds to promote tourism.

Biggest Constituency

In parliament, Costa remains in control. The Communists have said they will back the minority Socialist government’s 2018 budget proposal in an initial vote on Friday. On Oct. 24 Costa also got support from the Left Bloc, Communists and Greens -- his usual allies in parliament -- to defeat a censure motion on how he handled the fires.

Lisbon is the biggest of Portugal’s 22 constituencies, electing 47 out of a total 230 members of parliament. Together with the northern constituencies of Oporto and Braga, as well as Setubal just south of the capital, those four coastal districts account for more than half of all the seats in parliament.

Tourism and exports have been boosting the economy and helping the minority government manage the budget deficit, which last year was the narrowest as a percentage of gross domestic product in four decades of Portuguese democracy. Costa has reversed state salary cuts faster than the previous administration proposed, while raising indirect taxes.

Costa saw some endorsement for the government beyond Lisbon last month when his Socialist Party claimed its biggest victory in local elections, taking 38 percent of the vote and 159 of the country’s 308 town halls. That vote was exactly two weeks before the latest Oct. 15 surge in wildfires, which lifted this year’s death toll above 100.

“I’ll carry this weight on my conscience until the last day of my life,” Costa said in parliament on Oct. 18 as the country observed the second of three days of mourning.

— With assistance by Anabela Reis, and Henrique Almeida

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