Portugal’s interior minister resigns over fatal highway accident

Portugal’s Interior Minister Eduardo Cabrita resigned Friday after his driver was accused of “negligent homicide” over the death of a highway worker struck by his government BMW in June as the minister was returning from a national guard ceremony.

“I’ve watched with stupefaction the political capital that’s been made over this personal tragedy,” Cabrita told reporters. “I cannot allow this absolutely unacceptable political point-scoring to be used against the government, against the prime minister or against the PS (Socialist Party), therefore I have submitted my resignation.”

Cabrita’s reaction to the incident has long been an embarrassment for Prime Minister António Costa, whose Socialist Party faces a snap election on January 30. Costa had stood by his close political ally through months of criticism over Cabrita’s failure to resign earlier and speculation over his role in the high-speed incident. 

The minister provoked a new wave of outrage early Friday by stating “I was just a passenger” when the news broke that his driver, Marco Pontes, had been charged and a report that the investigation had found the ministerial car was travelling at over 160 kilometers-per-hour. 

“His reaction to the Public Prosecutor’s accusation of his driver has made him a minister unworthy of his office, a politician who shames the Republic,” Manuel Carvalho, director of the daily newspaper Público, wrote in an editorial published shortly before Cabrita’s resignation. 

The accident happened as the minister was heading back to Lisbon from a swearing-in ceremony for new members of the National Republican Guard in the eastern city of Portalegre. Road worker Nuno Santos was hit close to cleaning works on the side of the A6 highway.

 Cabrita’s ministry said the worker was crossing the highway when he was struck.

Costa said he understood that Cabrita took the decision to step down only after the conclusion of the prosecutor’s investigation. “He waited for justice to take its time,” Costa told reporters. 

Cabrita, 60, took over the post in 2017, after the country was devastated by deadly wildfires.

Besides the highway fatality, he has been criticized over a range of incidents, including the death of a Ukrainian immigrant in custody at Lisbon airport; authorization for celebrations of the national football championship that were blamed for spreading COVID-19; and his handling of a coronavirus outbreak among migrant farm hands. 

Costa said he will appoint an interim minister to hold the post until the election. Opinion polls have the Socialists as clear favorites to win the vote, which was called two years early after parliament failed to approve the government’s 2022 budget bill. 

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