IN A lively and amusing address to the British and German Chambers of Commerce, which belied his 81 years, former Socialist President Mário Soares attacked the excesses of the free market and stressed his own credentials as a man of the people. But much of his speech was tantamount to a thinly veiled character assassination of his principal opponent, Cavaco Silva, writes The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman.
Soares, who also served two terms as Prime Minister, outlined a character specification for the post of President. He said that the head of state should not be stiff and complicated in his personal relationships. Though he did not mention Cavaco Silva by name, it was clear that this was a swipe at the former Social Democrat Prime Minister whose period in office overlapped almost exactly with Soares’ decade as President between 1986 and 1996.
Soares said that, although a Portuguese President has at his disposal what has been described as the “atomic bomb” – the right to dissolve parliament and summon fresh legislative elections – he lacks what he called “conventional weapons”. It was, therefore, incumbent on him to be a person of flexibility. “The President has to be a galvaniser of national energies and a super ambassador to the nation,” he said.
Soares charged, indirectly, that Cavaco Silva was unsuited to the presidency, implying that he was an individual of narrow interests. “The President should be a politician familiar with all elements in society. An election campaign is not just about economic issues. How can one be President of the Republic without knowing about literature, history, the arts, social sciences and religious questions? A President cannot be stiff, distant and complicated. He has to give an example of conviviality. He has to be able to engage with all people, to talk in the same way to everyone, irrespective of how humble or powerful they may be,” he said.
Economy must serve people
Soares said that, during his period as President, he had striven for national consensus. He reminded his audience that, following a very close presidential election race in 1986 (in which he had defeated Diogo Freitas do Amaral by less than one per cent of the vote), he had won overwhelming re-election five years later.
Stressing his Socialist credentials, Soares said he was a believer in the market economy, but added an important caveat: “The economy has to be placed at the service of people and not the people at the service of the economy.” Soares admitted that Portugal was facing critical times: “a period of financial, economic and psychological crisis”. He highlighted the fact that out of the 15 original EU members, Portugal had the widest social inequalities. “I find this insupportable and painful,” he said.
Soares said that, although business leaders constantly demanded a less overbearing state and more flexible labour markets, the government still exerted a vital role. “We need the state to provide educated, specialised and trained workers, as well as calm and social cohesion,” he said. Soares added that the most successful economies in the world also had excellent models of social development and warned that high-growth economies, such as China, faced problems in the future if they failed to address people’s social and democratic needs.