Portugal’s PM “upbeat” over election race as opposition demands answers over five-year tax arrears

Five clear months before Portugal goes to the polls for its next round of legislative elections, the international press has described prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho as “upbeat” over his party’s chances of being returned to power. But as opinion polls show both the PSD and Socialist PS neck-and-neck, the PM’s embarrassing Tecnoforma tax scandal has once again been dragged back into the limelight.

Opposition parties are “demanding” further explanations. As Portugal’s media points out, “Social Security ordered 374,150 confiscations over debts last year, lodged 1,468 criminal cases and coercively brought in €608 million – but from 1999-2004 it did not notify Passos Coelho of the debts he had to pay…”

The fact that the PM has since put his hand in his pocket “voluntarily” and paid the €3,914.48 reported to be due has not satisfied anyone – other than the tax authorities perhaps.

Socialist MP Ana Catarina Mendes says “a complete explanation” is required; BE’s Catarina Martins stressed “it is serious that a prime minister should forget to pay Social Security when so many others in difficulties are not allowed to do so” and the PCP’s Jorge Cordeiro contends that Passos Coelho’s explanations for the debt this far have been “messy” in the extreme.

The whole issue of Passos Coelho’s past earnings at Tecnoforma came under intense scrutiny last September when Sábado magazine leaked a story that he was “under investigation for not having declared €5,000-a-month income between 1995-98”, when, Sábado alleged, he should have been solely pocketing an MP’s salary. The total at issue was €150,000 in allegedly untaxed income.

Público followed the story up – claiming its journalists had been on the trail of tax evasion allegations surrounding the prime minister for years.

The issue was remarkably laid to rest by the Public Prosecutor which said that any debts owed from that far back were now null and void.

Was that an end to the scandal? No, says Observador website, firmly. As there is an inquiry ongoing into Tecnoforma – for which Passos Coelho continued to work, in varying roles, until 2007.

The “forgotten tax” which he voluntarily paid last February, relates to five of those years, from 1999-2004.

But as the controversy is rekindled to the delight of the nation’s press, Passos Coelho has played his well-worn “perplexed” card.

He told newspapers he was perplexed that his personal tax details had been brought to light by third parties and not by any investigation by Social Services or the Tax department.

His own minister for Social Security Pedro Mota Soares explained away the furore saying Passos Coelho had been the “victim of an administrative error”.

Meantime, Reuter’s news agency has reported that the PM is nonetheless bullish over his chances of re-election in September/October – the most likely months for the country’s race to the polls.

“My expectation is that a government with a parliamentary majority can come out of this election. And that is what I’ll fight for,” he told Expresso on Saturday.

And for the first time a survey of voting intentions by Eurosondagem has shown that the PSD/CDS-PP coalition, with 35% support, was so close to the Socialists, on 37.5%, “that they were inside the margin of error to make a statistical draw”, writes Reuters.

A similar Eurosondagem poll earlier in February had put the Socialists ahead by 4.5 percentage points. Thus pressure is now on Socialist leader António Costa to tip the balance.

Costa has gone on record to refute any idea that there could be a “central bloc” in charge after the elections – a merger of PSD and PS.

“It’s us or them,” he told Expresso at the weekend. “That is the only option.”

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]

Photo: PM Passos Coelho said he was perplexed that his personal tax details had been brought to light by third parties and not by any investigation by the authorities

Photo by: MIGUEL A. LOPES/LUSA