Cavaco Silva is Portugal’s new President.jpg

Cavaco Silva is Portugal’s new President

ANÍBAL CAVACO Silva won a landslide victory against his presidential opponents in the race for Belém last Sunday. Garnering an impressive 50.6 per cent of the vote (2,745,491), the former Social Democrat (PSD) Prime Minister and university economy professor won in the first round, leaving the other candidates out in the cold, reports The Resident’s Chris Graeme.

Writer and poet Manuel Alegre took second place (20.7 per cent – 1,124,662 votes) and retired lawyer Mário Soares third (14.3 per cent – 778,389 votes). Jerónimo de Sousa (8.6 per cent – 466,425 votes), Francisco Louçã (5.3 per cent) and Garcia Pereira (0.4 per cent) followed.

However, Cavaco Silva’s victory against his opponents works out at little more than 60,000 votes. In 1986, in the second round, Mário Soares managed to get 130,000 more votes than Freitas do Amaral, while in the duel between Jorge Sampaio and Cavaco in 1991, the difference was even more marked, by 400,000 votes.    

It is the first time, since 1974, that Portugal has a centre-right wing conservative President at the same time as a Socialist government, reversing the situation when defeated rival Mário Soares was in Belém and Cavaco Silva was Prime Minister between 1985 and 1995.

The Portuguese electoral map looks decidedly orange. Out of 18 districts, the Azores and Madeira, only Beja swung to PCP-supported candidate Jerónimo de Sousa. Cavaco Silva managed to get higher than the national average in Porto (51.5 per cent), while doing reasonably well in Lisbon (44 per cent). Bragança gave him the best results (67 per cent).

Despite the fact that some commentators believe Cavaco Silva’s commanding style will prove to be a thorn in the side of Socialist (PS) Prime Minister José Sócrates, it is likely the two men will widely collaborate on the sweeping structural reforms (social, educational, financial and judicial) the country desperately needs to stay ahead of rival European Union competitors.

There was an atmosphere of tense excitement on Sunday evening at the new President’s election night headquarters at Lisbon’s Belém Cultural Centre, opposite the presidential palace he occupied the following day.

The first indications that he had surged forward against the other five candidates were greeted with cries of jubilation and rounds of applause shortly after 9pm. But it wasn’t until 11pm that it became clear Cavaco Silva had secured the percentage he needed in order to win the first round.

The new President had been watching the polls at home with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Cavaco waited until the other candidates had addressed the nation and their party faithful before making his first commentaries outside his Lisbon apartment, from where he drove to the Cultural Centre to be greeted by a sea of flags waved by swarms of supporters.

He appeared on stage before the country’s media to give his first official speech, saying: “The government and parliamentary bodies can expect a spirit of loyalty, respect and co-operation.” He expressed his enormous, unshakable faith in liberty and democracy and promised to work to help the country. “The work ahead will be tough and demanding and we’ve all got to roll up our sleeves and get down to it,” he said while promising to bury the hatchet with his opponents. “The fight ends today and my victory isn’t anyone’s defeat, but simply the legitimate choice by the Portuguese for the next five years. I wish everyone every personal and professional success.” The newly elected President then addressed the party faithful in the foyer before appearing on the balcony of the Cultural Centre to address 500 public supporters.

Mário Soares, accepting his double defeat, said: “I accept this defeat with good grace and a sense of democratic fair play. It only remains for me to congratulate Dr. Cavaco Silva, as I have just done on the telephone, and wish him all the best in carrying out his new political functions.”

Manuel Alegre limited his comments by saying: “The left lost and I wish to show my solidarity. Even so, we got over a million votes, which will help breathe new life into the political situation. My ideas deserved a million votes and I hope that they can contribute towards political renovation.”

What is interesting about this election is not so much the widely predicted victory for Cavaco Silva in the first round, as the disastrous and humiliating public defeat for Portugal’s Mário Soares, trailing well behind Manuel Alegre.

Ten years ago, when Cavaco Silva was utterly defeated in the then legislative elections by Socialist António Guterres, the former Prime Minister was a politically spent force despite the fact that he was respected abroad and widely credited for creating the right conditions resulting in Portugal’s economic miracle, which saw the country surge forward to reach a level of financial prosperity that promised to close the gap with her other European Union partners.    

Then followed the period of socialist supremacy with the PS government of António Guterres, socialist President Jorge Sampaio in Belém and relative political and economic stability reflected by high consumer confidence, low employment and acceptable state budgets, which continued until Portugal’s leadership of the EU Presidency in 2000.

However, a crisis of world confidence and security precipitated by September 11, the economic slump in Germany and France, war in Iraq and the threat of vigorous, cheaper, high production competitive economies within Eastern Europe and Asia, coupled with spiralling energy and oil prices, have not been kind to Portugal. This, together with increased public indebtedness, an increase in unemployment, capital flight abroad, falling productivity, an inability to balance the country’s budget, rampant tax evasion and a pressing need to restructure and reduce a ballooning public administration sector equal to that of the UK, spelt the end of the good times. Portugal was in a mess.

The budgetary and economic crisis that ensued precipitated the fall of Guterres’ Socialist government, PSD Barroso’s hasty departure for the EU at a critical point, the fiasco of Pedro Santana Lopes’ dismissal, and the election of José Sócrates promising reform.

Now, after 12 months of promises and four economy ministers, the honeymoon is over with the Portuguese public, investors and businesspeople alike sending a clear message in this election that something must be done and done fast.

Cavaco Silva clearly has not won this presidential election because his comeback was anticipated or planned over the past decade, but because he is a man for this season, who fits the times and the depressed and despairing economic circumstances the country now finds itself.

Of all the political commentators who spoke on the night, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa summed up the mood of the electorate by saying: “Anyone who knows Cavaco Silva knows that he gets to the essentials and, at the moment, the essentials are that the government isn’t having much success in dealing with the economic and social situation.”