Portugal crisis grows as minister quits in nepotism row scandal

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Portugal's conservative Prime Minister, Jose Antonio Durao Barroso, sought to control a mounting crisis yesterday by replacing his foreign minister Antonio Martins da Cruz, who quit in disgrace after allegedly using his influence to get his daughter into university.

Mr Martins da Cruz was a main player in Mr Barroso's right-wing government, particularly as Portugal is embroiled in complex haggling over voting rights in the European Union. His resignation on Tuesday has thrown Mr Barroso's coalition government into its worst crisis since it took power in April last year.

Teresa Gouveia, from the conservative Social Democratic Party, was appointed as the new foreign minister yesterday, the first Portuguese woman to hold the post. Ms Gouveia was environment minister in the conservative government of Anibal Cavaco Silva between 1993 and 1995.

The scandal broke last Thursday when television company SIC revealed Mr Martins da Cruz had sought to get his daughter Diana admitted to Lisbon University Medicine faculty without the necessary qualifications, or having sat the entrance exams.

The higher education minister Pedro Lynce personally approved Ms Martins da Cruz's entry into the university in July after receiving a written request from her father, it was revealed last week. Mr Lynce fell on his sword on Friday, faced with public outrage at his gesture of perceived favouritism. Mr Lynce insisted he had done nothing wrong.

It took a further four days for the foreign minister himself to stand down, a delay attributed to his importance in Mr Barroso's cabinet, and his personal friendship with the Prime Minister. Criticisms came not just from the socialist opposition but from within his own party. "My conscience is clear. I have committed no crime, nor violated any ethical principles," Mr Martins da Cruz said.

Mr Martins was Portugal's ambassador in Madrid from 1999 until he joined Mr Barroso's new government in 2002. He apparently wrote to Mr Lynce requesting that his daughter be granted special exemption from the usual entry requirements. Under Portuguese law, children of diplomats have direct access to higher education with minimum grades when they have completed their secondary schooling abroad.

Diana Martins da Cruz undertook most of her schooling in Brussels and Madrid, but spent her last school year in Lisbon, which disqualified her from the special dispensation.

Before Mr Martins da Cruz applied directly to the minister responsible, he reportedly tried to change the law, to enable youngsters like Diana to enter higher education without having to meet the requirements demanded of ordinary Portuguese school leavers. These efforts were rejected. A week after approving Mr Martins da Cruz's request, Mr Lynce confirmed that the law would not be changed.

The scandal has outraged the Portuguese public, prone to believe that politicians regularly bend the rules to suit themselves. "The government dragged its feet. Caesar's wife must be beyond reproach, and seen to be so," wrote the mainstream newspaper Diario de Noticias yesterday.