A sensitive man in politics

news: A sensitive man in politics

The brilliant law professor and politician, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has been the centre of attention since he resigned last week. He was the political commentator for the TVI television channel, where, for the last four years, he has commented every Sunday evening on the latest happenings in Portugal and around the world.

His resignation followed numerous complaints by members of his own party (PSD) that he ‘hated’ Prime Minister Santana Lopes. There was a call by Rui Gomes da Silva, the new Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, for a ‘right to reply’ for the government and an alleged request by the owner of TVI, Miguel Paes de Amaral, that Marcelo should tone down his criticisms of the government and find an alternative and ‘lighter’ way to make his comments.

President Jorge Sampaio called Marcelo in for a private chat and the newspapers were full of the threat he posed to democracy – as if pressures on journalists from both governments and proprietors were not the stuff of every democracy. The government of Santana Lopes will probably suffer more damage in the opinion polls from Marcelo’s resignation than from any amount of negative comments by him in the news. After all, Marcelo has criticised the governments of both parties and the worst he could do in his last broadcast was to comment that Santana Lopes’ decision to give a ‘ponte’ holiday on the Monday before the October 5 holiday was worse than anything done by António Guterres, who had developed a reputation for giving too much away.

Marcelo was born in 1948 and is the eldest of the three sons of Baltasar Rebelo de Sousa, a well-known figure in the pre-1974 regime. As a young man, Baltasar joined the Mocidade Portuguesa, the state-run youth movement and, always a hard worker, he soon became assistant to the movement’s leader, Marcelo Caetano, after whom his son Marcelo was named. Baltasar went on to become Governor of Mozambique from 1971 to 1974 and then Minister of Health, and, finally, Minister of the Colonies in 1973. Baltasar used to take his son with him on official visits and Marcelo grew up at ease with his father’s government friends.

While his parents were away in Mozambique, the young Marcelo would have dinner once a week with Marcelo Caetano, by then Prime Minister, who once wrote to Baltasar: “On Sunday, I had dinner with your two boys. What a pleasant night, and how refreshing it is to be with them, to appreciate their intelligence, so alive and present, and at the same time as sensitive and lucid as that of Marcelo! You can well thank God!”

Baltasar scorned personal gain and never owned his own house. He valued service and learning, family and, above all, politics and friendship. It is these values which his son has inherited. Marcelo was a brilliant student at Law School and became active in the student movement, which wanted Marcelo Caetano to introduce democratic reforms. At the invitation of Francisco Pinto Balsemão, he joined the team which launched the newspaper Expresso in 1973, and became expert at trying to get round the censorship which made publication of critical news or articles difficult, if not impossible.

After the revolution, Baltasar had to go into exile in Brazil, but Marcelo remained in Portugal and became a founding member of the Social Democratic Party (PPD and later PSD). When Balsemão became Prime Minister in 1980, after the death of Sá Carneiro, Marcelo took over as editor of Expresso and developed an independent line, at times highly critical of Balsemão. For his second government, Balsemão invited Marcelo to be a minister, partly – it was rumoured – as the best way to get rid of him as editor. In 1995, Marcelo became leader of the PSD, after the party’s defeat in the elections that year.

He fought for an electoral alliance with the PP party, led by Paulo Portas, and when Portas was linked to the Universidade Moderna scandal, he asked Marcelo for a statement in support. Instead, Marcelo announced that he had lost confidence in him as a partner, because he had revealed, in public, a private conversation between them. As a result, Marcelo resigned and cancelled the electoral alliance.

He is sometimes described as being too clever, or not serious enough, or more of an entertainer than a politician, such as when, for publicity purposes, he was photographed swimming in the River Tagus during his losing campaign as the right wing candidate to be Mayor of Lisbon. But some points are not in doubt – his sense of humour, his humanity and lust for life, and, above all, his phenomenal capacity for work. He sleeps only three to four hours a night and thinks nothing of going to a dinner in one city, speaking in another and returning home after midnight. Like many other brilliant men, he does not drive himself but uses the time in the car to make phone calls, write and read.

He is interested in all aspects of human life and has an enormous range of cultural, sporting and political interests. He is to be seen at major cultural and sporting events, such as the Estoril tennis tournament or Benfica football club. He swims regularly on the Praia de Conceição in Cascais and is available to thousands of friends, associates and correspondents. Each week, his driver picks up a sack-full of mail from TVI in response to his broadcasts and it is a point of honour for him to read and reply to them. He is sent countless books to review or mention on his programme.

Marcelo would like to write more in his field of administrative law, but he is too much in demand and still has so much to offer his country. As he grows older and the world becomes more complicated, as the public loses trust in politicians and he stands out above all, as a human being who likes a joke and tells the truth, but stays loyal to his friends and his principles, his best years in politics may be yet to come.