Freedom in the World 2021 - Portugal

/ 100
Political Rights 39 / 40
Civil Liberties 57 / 60
Last Year's Score & Status
96 / 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.


Portugal is a stable parliamentary democracy with a multiparty political system and regular transfers of power between political parties. Civil liberties are generally protected. Ongoing concerns include corruption, certain legal constraints on journalism, poor or abusive conditions for prisoners, and the effects of racial discrimination and xenophobia. Prosecutors have pursued corruption cases against top officials in recent years.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic affected Portugal less severely than other European countries, but starting in September infections soared. Collaboration between the government and the opposition, aided by several stringent lockdowns, abetted effective management; nonetheless, according to University of Oxford researchers, the country registered over 413,000 cases and over 6,900 deaths by year’s end.
  • A report on the rule of law in Portugal issued by the European Commission highlighted the need for improved anticorruption efforts, including within the judiciary, where institutional deficiencies were underscored by the filing of corruption charges against several former judges in September.
  • Continuing challenges in addressing racism were illustrated by an allegedly racially motivated murder in July, and a killing and attempted cover-up perpetrated by border police in Lisbon in March.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

In Portugal’s parliamentary system, the prime minister holds the most executive power, though the directly elected president can delay legislation through a veto and dissolve the parliament to trigger early elections. The president serves up to two five-year terms. In the 2016 presidential election, center-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who was supported by the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD) and its allies, won with 52 percent of the vote, easily defeating a leftist candidate backed by the ruling Socialist Party (PS).

In February 2019, Prime Minister António Costa faced and overcame a motion of no confidence that the opposition put forward in response to a series of public sector strikes. That October, the PS won the general election and Costa resumed his post as head of the new government.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

The 230 members of the unicameral Assembly of the Republic are directly elected every four years using a system of proportional representation in 22 multimember constituencies.

In the October 2019 legislative elections, the governing PS came in first with 106 seats, up from 86 in the previous parliament. The opposition PSD came in second with 77 seats. The Left Bloc (BE) took 19 seats, the Unitary Democratic Coalition (PCP–PEV) secured 12, the conservative-right People’s Party (CDS–PP) won 5, and the People-Animals-Nature party (PAN) took 4. Three new parties entered parliament, Iniciativa Liberal (IL), the far-right nationalist Chega (CH), and Livre (L), with one seat each.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4

Elections in Portugal are generally free and fair. The National Elections Commission oversees the process; according to a 2019 preelection visit by representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the electoral framework merited confidence, though enforcement of campaign finance rules remained uneven.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4

Political parties operate and compete with equal opportunity. There is no legal vote threshold for representation in the parliament, meaning smaller parties can win a seat with little more than 1 percent of the overall vote. Parties espousing racist, fascist, or regionalist values are constitutionally prohibited.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4

Portugal has established a strong pattern of peaceful power transfers through elections since it returned to democracy in the late 1970s. Three new parties emerged in the 2019 elections: Iniciativa Liberal, Chega, and Livre.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 4 / 4

Both voters and politicians are free from undue interference by forces outside the political system.

B4 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 4 / 4

Women and members of ethnic, religious, and other minority groups enjoy full political rights and participate in the political process. Women hold 38 percent of the seats in parliament, and three of them are of African descent—although these women faced racist, xenophobic abuse in 2020, including by their parliamentary colleague from the far-right Chega party. The autonomous regions of Azores and Madeira—two island groups in the Atlantic—have their own political structures with legislative and executive powers.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4

Elected officials are free to determine and implement laws and policies without improper interference by unelected groups. The government used its authority to issue states of emergency during both waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, with little pushback from the opposition.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4

The country has struggled in recent years with major corruption scandals involving high-ranking politicians, officials, and businesspeople, though many individuals have been duly prosecuted. In September 2020, 17 people, among them three judges, were charged with corruption following a four-year investigation. In February, Portuguese authorities complied with an Angolan government request to freeze bank accounts linked to Angolan businesswoman Isabel Dos Santos, whose assets were divided between Angola and Portugal.

In September, the European Commission published a report assessing the rule of law in Portugal that highlighted deficiencies in Portugal’s efforts to combat corruption. While several laws to enhance accountability and transparency for elected officials were approved in 2019, enforcement and effectiveness remain unproven, and resources for auditors, police, and prosecutors remain inadequate. Whistleblower protections are in place, but controversy surrounded the case of Rui Pinto, a hacker-turned-whistleblower who leaked troves of documents related to the business activities of European soccer clubs, as well as many of the documents behind the investigations of Isabel dos Santos. His trial on dozens of charges began in September.

Upon receiving large-scale economic relief funds from the European Union (EU), the government passed a bill simplifying the public procurement process, but in December the president vetoed the bill over concerns regarding lack of transparency and risks of corruption.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4

Portuguese law provides for public access to government information and judicial proceedings, and state agencies generally respect this right, although several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including Transparency International, have unsuccessfully asked the government to release information about the Golden Visas Program.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4

Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed. Public broadcasting channels are poorly funded and face strong competition from commercial television outlets, which provide a wide range of viewpoints, although the risk to pluralism has increased due to media ownership concentration. Internet access is not restricted, but most online media have become paid services and only one national news outlet remains totally open. According to a 2020 report by the European University Institute’s Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom, the economic crisis facing news outlets has lowered editorial autonomy and journalistic standards in Portugal.

Portugal remains one of the few countries in Europe where defamation is still a criminal offense, and although prosecutions are uncommon, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has repeatedly ruled against Portuguese authorities for their handling of both civil and criminal defamation cases against journalists.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

Portugal is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and forbids religious discrimination. The Religious Freedom Act provides benefits for religions that have been established in the country for at least 30 years or recognized internationally for at least 60 years. However, other groups are free to register as religious corporations and receive benefits such as tax-exempt status, or to practice their faith without registering.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4

Academic freedom is respected. Schools and universities operate without undue political or other interference.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4

There are no significant restrictions on private discussion or the expression of personal views, although defamation laws affect ordinary citizens and politicians.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4

Freedom of assembly is upheld by the authorities. In June 2020, protesters in several cities held peaceful marches in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting far-right supporters to hold a march later that month denying that racism exists in Portugal. Authorities refrained from overzealous enforcement of social distancing rules and public assembly restrictions in each case.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4

Freedom of association is respected. National and international NGOs, including human rights groups, operate in the country without interference. On several occasions in 2020, prominent antiracism NGO SOS Racismo faced threats and vandalism from members of Portugal’s small but growing far-right movement.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4

Workers enjoy the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike, though there are some limits on the right to strike in a wide range of sectors and industries that are deemed essential.

The state of emergency imposed to limit the spread of COVID-19 included suspension of the right to strike, resulting in the interruption of a dockworkers strike in March.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4

The judiciary is independent, but staff shortages and inefficiency have contributed to a considerable backlog of pending trials. The situation is more acute in administrative and tax courts, so new specialized courts are being created.

The Council of Europe (CoE) stated in a 2019 report that Portugal’s efforts to fight corruption among judges and prosecutors are unsatisfactory. In September, three former judges were charged with corruption in connection with a multiyear investigation that revealed a system of irregular allocation of court cases in order to facilitate graft and influence peddling.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4

The authorities generally observe legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, though court backlogs result in lengthy pretrial detention for some defendants. Due process rights are guaranteed during trial.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4

Human rights groups and the CoE have expressed concern over abuse of detainees and excessive use of force by police, particularly against members of racial and ethnic minorities. Overcrowding in prisons remains a problem, as do poor health and safety conditions.

In January 2020, police were accused of applying excessive force and expressing racist insults while detaining a Black woman over a minor transit infraction.

In March, border police at the Lisbon airport’s detention center allegedly killed a Ukrainian citizen awaiting deportation after arriving without a visa, leading to homicide charges against three border police agents.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4

Equal treatment under the law is guaranteed by the constitution. Various laws prohibit discrimination based on factors including sex, race, disability, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, problems persist with respect to gender bias and discrimination against minorities, particularly Roma and people of African descent.

Racism has become a more prominent issue in the public discourse, due in part to growing far-right support. Antiracism protests occurred in June 2020 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and again in July following the murder of a Black man in Lisbon by an assailant who had allegedly used racist insults while threatening the victim.

Although by some measures Portugal is considered a less discriminatory environment for people of African descent than other EU countries, black residents are also susceptible to disparities in housing, education, and employment. A September 2019 study from the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) found “deeply rooted institutional” discrimination at every stage of the judicial process, from reporting through sentencing. Antiracism advocates have accused the state-run Commission for Equality and against Racial Discrimination of negligence in its role as the government’s main antidiscrimination agency.

Although Portugal passed an antidiscrimination law in 2017, prejudice and anti-Roma sentiment are still common and rarely punished. Living conditions in Romany communities are generally poor, Romany children face segregation and poor school outcomes, and half of Romany men are employed. Stores in Porto have decorated the entrances to their premises with frogs to deter Roma from entering, as frogs are a symbol of bad luck to many Roma.

Migrants have complained of abusive conduct by state agents, starkly illustrated by the March 2020 killing of a Ukrainian migrant by border police. During the state of emergency proclaimed in response to COVID-19, the government regularized the status of all migrants and asylum seekers while their residency applications remained pending.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4

Freedom of movement and associated rights are protected in law and by the constitution, and the government respects these rights in practice. The COVID-19 lockdowns resulted in severe restrictions on movement, but the government was not accused of politicizing or abusing lockdown measures.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4

The government does not interfere with the rights to own property, establish private businesses, and engage in commercial activity. Due to a sharp rise in housing prices, a new Basic Housing Law entered into force in October 2019.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4

There are no major restrictions on personal social freedoms. Portugal legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 and extended adoption rights to same-sex couples in 2015. A 2018 law eliminated the need for transgender people to obtain a medical certificate to formally change their gender or first name. Domestic violence remains a problem despite government efforts aimed at prevention, education, and victim protection. The CoE is concerned that the definition of rape is not based solely on the absence of free consent but requires that there be “duress.”

The European Commission has urged Portugal to implement EU rules aimed at reducing child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4

The authorities generally enforce legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions. However, Portugal remains a destination and transit point for victims of human trafficking, particularly from Eastern Europe, Asia, and West Africa. Although forced labor is prohibited by law, there have been some reports of the practice, especially in the agriculture, hospitality, domestic service, and construction sectors. Immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to economic exploitation.

Since February 2019, new legislation obligates all companies to have a transparent compensation policy, an effort to combat the gender pay gap.

The government took steps to support workers affected by economic disruption related to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the closure of schools amid the pandemic’s arrival disadvantaged the approximately 50,000 children in households lacking internet access.