October 18, 2017 / 8:24 AM / 2 years ago

Portugal minister resigns over deadly wildfires, PM under pressure

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s interior minister resigned on Wednesday after wildfires killed more than a hundred people in the past four months, but the move did little to appease the opposition which called on Prime Minister Antonio Costa also to step down.

Smoke and flames from a forest fire are seen near Lousa, Portugal, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes

Hundreds of fires have raged across northern and central Portugal since Sunday after the driest summer in nearly 90 years, killing at least 41 people and overwhelming firefighting and rescue services. In June, a forest fire killed 64 people.

The government, which has enjoyed strong approval ratings due to an improving economy, faces a no-confidence vote next week over its slow response to the fires and a failure to prevent heavy loss of lives.

Although the motion is unlikely to pass, the Socialist government has been weakened by the public clamor over the fires and a further reshuffle may be on the cards, some analysts believe.

Costa, who said he felt secure about confidence in his government, nonetheless accepted the resignation of Interior Minister Constanca Urbano de Sousa whose office is in charge of firefighting, and the police and civil protection services.

“Although this tragedy resulted from many factors, I no longer have the political and personal conditions to remain in my position,” the minister said in her resignation statement.

The Social Democrats, the main opposition, on Wednesday threw their support behind the no-confidence motion launched by a relatively small centre-right party CDS-PP.

The two, however, do not have enough seats to bring down the government, whose left-wing allies closed ranks around it on Wednesday.

“You would do a favour to the country by submitting your resignation,” Social Democrat bench leader Hugo Soares told Costa during a fierce debate in parliament. “In order to stay in power, you are telling Portuguese to go screw themselves.”

But Left Bloc leader Catarina Martins called the no-confidence motion “a grotesque trick” and “exploitation of the country’s vulnerability” after the tragedy. The minority government relies on support from Left Bloc and Communists in parliament.

Both parties have blamed previous governments, especially the Social Democrat-CDS coalition which ruled in 2011-15 and imposed painful austerity measures, for bad forestry management and underfinancing of fire prevention.

Costa once again promised reforms to meet any new such challenges in the future and blamed severe drought for the fires and decades of neglect in management of forested areas.

He was due on Wednesday to meet President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who has also been critical of the state’s response.

This year’s fires have burnt a record 520,000 hectares of forest, 52 times the size of Lisbon proper and representing nearly 60 percent of the total area burnt in the entire European Union in 2017, data from the EU showed on Wednesday.

Portugal represents just about 2.1 percent of Europe’s total landmass.

Additional reporting by Axel Bugge; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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