by CHRIS GRAEME
Prime Minister José Sócrates and leader of the opposition Manuela Ferreira Leite, gave a lacklustre performance on Saturday night’s head-to-head television debate ahead of the General Election on September 27.
Most commentators and political analysts said that the two leaders were balanced and measured in their arguments while the leader of the opposition PSD party, Manuela Ferreira Leite, failed to reveal any policy detail in her party’s 30-page election manifesto.
However, at the end of the debate, she ruled out, should she win the election, any possibility of a coalition government with the ruling PS party as being “out of the question”.
According to the latest opinion polls, the election promises to produce the most fragmented parliament since the April 25th Revolution, with 33.6 per cent of votes going to the socialist party PS (84-90 deputies), 32.5 per cent going to the opposition conservative PSD (84-90 deputies) and the rest of the votes and seats evenly divided between the left wing Bloco Esquerda (9.6 per cent and 18-20 seats), right wing CDS-PP (14-16 seats) and communist CDU (9.4 per cent and 16-19 seats).
Manuela Ferreira Leite said she hadn’t demanded an absolute majority from the electorate because she wasn’t going to “blackmail” the voters since “an absolute majority wasn’t necessary to govern”.
“I hope that the PS will act as responsibly as the PSD, which granted six years of minority government to António Guterres,” she said, referring to the last socialist government in the late 1990s and first half of the decade.
José Sócrates refused to commit himself publicly to eventual alliances and deals with other parties such as the Bloco Esquerda (a group of parties akin to Old Labour) and added that if he won he would not reshuffle government ministries while if he lost, he would continue on as a parliamentary deputy.
The Prime Minister rejected the accusation that his government had “strangled democracy”, referring to recent allegations that it had attempted to stifle the freedoms of the press, and accused Manuela Ferreira Leite of having a “false candidate” in Madeira in the shape of Alberto João Jardim who had been the party leader there and governor for 30 years.
In relation to the economy, Manuela Ferreira Leite stressed that current economic policy “had to be changed” and added that even before the global crisis Portugal’s economy had been “on the downturn.”
She argued that the government had stepped in “too little too late” and with the “wrong policies” to fight the crisis while “ignoring the plight of small and medium enterprises.”
José Sócrates vehemently denied the allegations and said that Ferreira Leite had analysed the 2008 figures as “if they had been (published) before the crisis had begun when they hadn’t.”
Differences over public works projects continued with the Prime Minister accusing the opposition leader of signing up to the TGV high-speed rail link under the Durão Barroso government, to which Ferreira Leite said she had changed position because of Portugal’s unsustainable external debt.
Sócrates promised not to raise taxes while Ferreira Leite said she could not promise not to do so but that it was unlikely she would raise taxes given the current high tax levels.
Manuela Ferreira Leite blamed the current public deficit problems on the mis-governance of the socialist António Guterres government from the late 1990s.
On Social Security, Sócrates refused to tackle the issue of reform and say if the retirement age would be raised and pensions reduced, while Manuela Ferreira Leite sidetracked the issue of toll introductions on the system of currently free ‘A’ highways known as SCUTs.
On health both parties promised not to privatise the National Health Service but the PSD defended Public Private Partnerships in running the system.