Dancing with chairs

news: Dancing with chairs

Sócrates steps into line with inevitable Jobs for the Boys

NO PRIME Minister, since the revolution, has been able to resist his party’s claims for its share of the spoils of office. As soon as each one wins the election and takes office, the so-called dance of the chairs begins afresh and party members are rewarded for their support with lucrative directorships or appointments as advisers.

Before the general election, José Sócrates spoke of an inter-party agreement to depoliticise many important posts, but he too has followed the standard pattern. Within the first six months of his premiership, more than 50 new presidents and board members have been appointed at such State controlled companies as the CTT (Post Office), ANA (airports authority), Galp and the Caixa Geral, for the second time in one year.

It is generally recognised that ministers need to have trust in the board members of State owned companies and that this may sometimes involve their appointing people who believe in the policies to be applied. But, should it be standard practice to appoint new presidents and boards each time there is a new government?

Although the appointments are essentially political, the law governing the appointment and dismissal of board members is the same in a State owned as in a private company. Since they are appointed for a three year term at high salary levels and are often dismissed within this period, they become entitled to large amounts of compensation and the recent wave of dismissals has rightly given rise, yet again, to many complaints and claims that the law be altered to reflect the true status of political appointees.

Recently, the appointment of politicians as directors of the Caixa Geral, the country’s largest bank, has been the most visible and controversial. Last month, within weeks of his own appointment, the Finance Minister appointed a new president and board member of the Caixa. The new president, Carlos Santos Ferreira, has a clean record, but the new board member, Armando Vara, is a long time Socialist Party (PS) member and friend of the Prime Minister. He had to resign as a minister in 2000 because, as secretary of state in the Home Office, he had been responsible for setting up a private foundation with government funds.

The spin put out by the government to justify the substitution of the president of the Caixa was that it needed a president who is 100 per cent behind its policy of developing both the new Lisbon airport at Ota and the TGV high speed train line to Spain. The Finance Minister weighed in to say that he had chosen Vara because he had such confidence in his abilities, but the appointments are just two more to add to the list of Jobs for the Boys.

Other long-term members of the PS who have been appointed to State company boards include Luís Nazaré as president of the CTT. He was formerly the president of Anacom, the telecom regulator, where he oversaw the setting up of a virtually free mobile telephone market, but failed to challenge the monopoly of PT in fixed and cable sector. He is personable and potentially a good choice for the Post Office.

At Galp, Francisco Murteira Nabo has been brought in as non-executive president and he has the benefit of many years’ experience as president of PT, another company with private shareholders but effective State control. The appointment of Fernando Gomes, former mayor of Porto and minister under António Guterres, as a board member of Galp was criticised in the press but his appointment seems reasonable.

The media’s disappointment in José Sócrates as Prime Minister is palpable. He has the support of the country and, with an absolute majority in parliament, he has the power to enforce his will, but even he has been unable to change the prevailing pattern. Yet, the truth is that the hopes placed in him were unrealistic in the first place and any solution has to recognise the power of the parties and their members’ expectations.

Politicians in Portugal take their lead from the style of the statesmen of the 19th century. Just as French presidents soon take on the regal attitudes of the Bourbon kings or even Charles de Gaulle, and British ministers always think that, like their lordly predecessors, they have an inherent right to rule and decide what is best for the common people, so the first concern of politicians in Portugal is the division of the spoils.

The current constitution was drawn up after the 1974 revolution in reaction to the Salazar regime. Its aim was to devolve power to the people and it sees political action as taking place between parties rather than individuals. So, when you vote in an election, you vote for the party according to its symbol on the ballot sheet, no names are mentioned. The parties dominate the political scene and it is not feasible directly to challenge their role in the distribution of political offices, positions in the government and directorships in State or municipally owned companies.

The system can only change gradually and the President of the Republic is the only person with the authority to broker an agreement between the parties. His aim should be to get agreement on a limited list of companies in the State sector, where, in future, directors would be substituted only in exceptional circumstances. Then the government will save the money it now pays out in compensation claims and the country will get the better, long-term management it so desperately needs in the State owned sector. Otherwise, on past form, the dance of the chairs will start again almost as soon as the last dance has finished.

• David Sampson can be contacted via email at [email protected]