PORTUGAL’s political parties are gearing up for the forthcoming elections on February 20, with polls giving the Socialists a clear lead. The ruling PSD (Social Democrats) and its coalition partner, CDS-PP (Popular Party), are running separate lists in the elections, but indications are that they will probably unite once the result is declared.
Controversially, Paulo Portas, head of the CDS-PP, said he expected the President, Jorge Sampaio, to appoint a new coalition centre-right government, if the combined votes of the PSD and CDS-PP are greater than those of the Socialist Party (PS). Portas has also rallied to the support of Santana Lopes,
citing a concerted whispering campaign against the government. His comments were seen as a veiled criticism of former Prime Minister, Cavaco Silva, who had commented on alleged ministerial incompetence. “There were people who talked when they shouldn’t have done and there were people who contributed articles and opinions that created a fractured climate,” he said.
With his celebrity lifestyle and interest in sport, Prime Minister, Pedro Santana Lopes, was heralded by some as Portugal’s answer to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, when he succeeded Durão Barroso last July. But President Sampaio, who came under fire for not calling fresh elections at the time, warned Santana Lopes that he expected his administration to create a climate of stability. In the end, Santana Lopes’ ‘honeymoon’ lasted just over four months, a period marked by delays in assigning teachers to schools at the start of the new academic year, internecine squabbling and allegations of government interference in the media.
Santana still standing
On December 11, the President formally announced his decision to call legislative elections in February, swiftly followed by the government’s resignation. Under the terms of the Portuguese constitution, the ‘caretaker’ government can only legislate on necessary and urgent matters to maintain the daily running of the country. Although Santana Lopes has submitted his government’s resignation, he is still his party’s leader and a candidate to be Prime Minister – no credible internal challenge to his leadership is apparent.
Santana Lopes’ elevation to the top job was always controversial. Some commentators said that Barroso’s resignation had triggered the gravest political crisis since the 1974 Revolution. But criticism also came from within the PSD itself. Former Finance Minister, Manuela Ferreira Leite, said Santana Lopes’ election amounted to “a coup within the party”. To the Socialists, it was a coup by the State against the will of the people, who, they claimed, had expressed continued dissatisfaction with the government’s support for the war in Iraq and harsh economic austerity measures. Socialist leader, Ferro Rodrigues, promptly resigned in the aftermath of Sampaio’s decision not to hold elections, and was replaced by the more photogenic José Sócrates.
Victim of circumstance
Most polls show that the Portuguese people support Sampaio’s U-turn on elections, but a clear majority blame Durão Barroso for precipitating the crisis. Meanwhile, Santana Lopes has cast himself as the victim, describing the President’s decision to dissolve his administration after four months as “unprecedented” and hinting at political bias. Interviewed on live television just before Christmas, Santana Lopes said political instability was one of the country’s main problems, citing Portugal’s frequent changes of government in recent times that now includes four leaders in as many years. Brandishing a copy of The Times newspaper, which contained stories about the alleged feud between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, he said that ministerial infighting (a reference to the resignation of Henrique Chaves, former Minister for Sport, Youth and Rehabilitation, after just four days) was not, in itself, sufficient justification to dissolve parliament.
Most commentators believe that José Sócrates, the 47-year-old former Environment Minister, will be the next resident of São Bento. Sócrates is seen as relatively untainted, a fact that could help him in the head to head battle with Santana Lopes. But doubt remains over his ability to win an overall majority – the other left-wing parties, Francisco Louça’s Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) and the Communist Party (CP), under the new leadership of Jerónimo de Sousa, have ruled out post-electoral deals. Abstentions in the elections are also expected to be lower than usual due to the current frenzied political climate.