Current Portuguese Prime Minister Durão Barroso’s chosen successor, Pedro Santana Lopes, has been voted in as the new leader of the ruling Social Democrats, but may not become Prime Minister.
Santana Lopes was elected to take over from the current PM, who is leaving to become President of the EU, in an internal secret ballot by 98 votes to three at a special meeting of the party’s National Council. But his election was overshadowed by an increasingly public disagreement about the exact nature of the promises given by President Sampaio to Durão Barroso during private audiences.
Barroso used the occasion of Santana Lopes’ election to reveal more about his view that his resignation had been dependent on a key commitment from President Sampaio not to call legislative elections. Barroso apparently told his party that he had only accepted the post of President of the European Commission after being “wholly convinced” that there was no question of fresh elections. Barroso has also reacted angrily to comments made by party elder statesman Miguel Viega, who said that the elevation of Santana Lopes to the post of party leader did not necessarily mean he should be Prime Minister.
Political commentators are viewing Barroso’s comments as a message to the President that he should not renege on his alleged commitment not to jeopardise the stability of the coalition government. But his words were also seen as a warning to his own party that they should avoid internecine warfare. “It is vitally important that the PSD does not betray signs of instability at this moment because this could contribute to wider instability in the country. We must be careful that a mistake on our part does not put the Socialists in power,” he said.
The Prime Minister made his comments as other dissenting voices over Santana Lopes’ appointment – notably Finance Minister Manuela Ferreira Leite and Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Marques Mendes – seemed to be toning down their criticism. Leite, who had earlier described Santana Lopes’ elevation to the top job as “a coup d’état”, has conceded that her comments may have been unduly strident. Nevertheless her position in any new Social Democrat government is being seen as untenable given her disapproval of Santana Lopes and her abrasive public image. She was thought to be one of the three people who voted against Santana Lopes’ election as leader, along with Miguel Viega and Rui Machete.
guarantee to Barroso
Meanwhile, President Sampaio has denied giving any explicit guarantees associated with Barroso’s resignation and has made it clear that he has not yet decided whether to call elections or appoint a new government. Sampaio has been receiving many visitors at Belém Palace including former Prime Minister Guterres and he is clearly keen to dispel any idea of a ‘deal’ between himself and Prime Minister Barroso. João Gabriel, a key adviser to Sampaio, said: “The President of the Republic never gave commitments to the Prime Minister in any of their three private encounters they had to discuss this issue.”
The President said his decision on whether to appoint a new government or call an election, would be unbiased and free of pressure from interested parties.He described it as the “most difficult and serious” decision of his presidency so far and conceded that, whatever his eventual conclusion, it was bound to antagonise a large slice of political opinion.
Meanwhile, new Social Democrat leader Santana Lopes said that he and his party did not fear a general election. “If there is electoral combat, then we are ready to win,” he said. Paulo Portas, the head of the CDS-PP, the PSD’s coalition partner, also said he would approach fresh elections without trepidation, but made clear that he thought they were unnecessary and potentially harmful to the economy.
Portuguese captains of industry have given their backing to Santana Lopes and voiced their concern that the tentative economic recovery could be jeopardised in the event of elections and a Socialist victory. Rui Moreira, the President of the Porto Commercial Association, invited a group of entrepreneurs to a lunch, during which the attendees declared their united opposition to fresh elections.
However, the Socialist Party views the prospect of elections very differently. Currently ahead in the polls, PS leader Ferro Rodrigues has said that going to the country is the only realistic solution to the current ‘crisis’. Rodrigues also remembered that back in December 2001, when Socialist Prime Minister António Guterres resigned following poor local election results, that the Social Democrats had demanded immediate elections. “If the PSD affirmed its willingness to announce legislative elections, then this would be more consistent with their previous stance,” he noted.
President Sampaio is due to announce whether he will appoint a new government or call elections at the end of this week.