Prospects for the new Prime Minister

news: Prospects for the new Prime Minister

Life with Santana will never be dull. Durão Barroso lacked charisma and led a government dominated by the need to curb its predecessor’s budget deficit. Santana is a populist known for his wives, women and social life. He is used to appearing in the gossip columns of popular magazines and, to intellectuals, he is anathema – too willing to make short-term points and too quick to make decisions without considering their long-term impact. Yet, he could be the right man at the right time and he may surprise the sceptics.

Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes, the man who former Prime Minister Cavaco Silva thought unworthy of ministerial rank, has lost little time in justifying his reputation for making quick decisions. Together with his new ministers, Antónia Mexia at Public Works and Bagão Felix at the Ministry of Finance, he has removed the political appointees who were causing management problems in TAP and the Caixa Geral.

At TAP, PSD veteran, Cardoso e Cunha, on his appointment as non-executive President, had interfered in the management and started a public argument with Fernando Pinto, the Brazilian professional brought in from Varig to stem the losses. To universal approval, Pinto had begun to turn the company around, but, because of pressure from Cardoso e Cunha, he was ready to leave at the end of the year. Within a month of Santana Lopes taking office, Cardoso e Cunha was dismissed and António Mexia was authorised to negotiate a further contract with Fernando Pinto as managing director.

At the Caixa, the previous government had divided power between Luís Mira Amaral as CEO and António de Sousa as President of the Board. Santana Lopes and Bagão Felix accepted the resignations of both men and appointed Vitor Martins as the new President of the Board and CEO combined. Martins’ experience of banking has been limited to a consultancy with Citibank, but he is respected for his work on European integration and he is a likeable man. So, his appointment was popular, but we were brought back to earth with a bang when Celeste Cardona, the discredited former PP Minister of Justice, was appointed as one of his vice-presidents. Yet again, a state company has been loaded with a political appointee as a reward for past services.

Santana’s time as Mayor of Lisbon showed that quick decisions may have difficult long-term consequences. His major new work for the city – the construction of the tunnel under the Marquês de Pombal road junction – has been stopped in the middle of building works, because no environmental impact study had been made and no-one knows how long it will be delayed.

Durão Barroso

in Brussels

Barroso is much better off as President of the EU Commission, where he can only benefit Portugal. His special talents can now be seen. During his appearances before the European Parliament, he spoke English, French and Spanish fluently. He is able to master a dossier and respond to questions on a wide variety of subjects with wit and humour. Even the hesitancy of a Prime Minister may become appropriate behaviour in an international statesman.

He has already been praised for the way he stood up to the major powers in the distribution of offices among the Commissioners, and he may well have the right characteristics to push through the modernisation needed to make the EU competitive economically. Progress on the manifesto agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2000 has been blocked, particularly by Germany and France, and Europe needs a leader with expertise and energy to move it forward.

Barroso may have an extra quality – luck. In 2001, the Socialists handed him the elections, when Guterres suddenly resigned and dissolved parliament. He hosted the Bush, Blair and Aznar summit before the Iraqi war, which could have made him unacceptable to President Chirac, but Portugal’s role at the summit was described as being ‘limited to providing the catering’. Although he appeared in the photo line-up at the end of the summit, he was cut out of the photo as it was published worldwide. Then he is a Social Democrat, which he needed to be to satisfy the right-wing majority in the European Parliament.

A new opposition

Back in Portugal, the battle between Santana Lopes and José Socrates, elected last weekend as leader of the Socialist Party (PS) with 80 per cent of the votes, will also enliven the political debate. They used to face each other as commentators on TV – they are now Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. Neither are grey men, both are good at sound bites. Some of Santana’s performances as Prime Minister have been poor, and he has made statements which have later had to be contradicted by his Ministers, but he has already started reforms, like that of the rent law, which none of his predecessors had dared to face.

Some of the new Ministers, such as Carmo Seabra at Education and Luís Nobre Guedes (a lawyer who is the number two to Paulo Portas in the CDS) at the Environment, have had to deal with early crises. Carmo Seabra, a brilliant academic with two years as a board member of Anacom as her only administrative experience, is the new Minister of Education. She has had to cope with the complete failure of the new computerised system of placing teachers around the country.

The school year started on September 15, but 50,000 teachers still did not know where they would be teaching this year. Despite attempts to lay blame on Compta, the company which installed the computer system, the recently appointed parliamentary enquiry will probably find that the blame lies within the staff of the Ministry who are known for their rigidity and left wing ideologies.

The Ministry of the Environment has been separated from the Ministry of Cities only two years after the two were merged. Nobre Guedes quickly upset the apple cart by publishing a report on an accident at the Galp refinery in Matosinhos, which was highly critical of the Galp management. It was revealed that serious loss of life was only avoided because the local fire brigade were having a meeting nearby and were all on the spot within 10 minutes. To protect Galp, Álvaro Barreto, the new minister of the Economy, took over responsibility and criticised Nobre Guedes for not waiting a couple of days before he published the report.

Better an entertainer than a teacher

Within his first two months as Prime Minister, Santana Lopes has already been on official visits to Brazil and New York, but his major preoccupation will be generating economic growth at home and convincing the middle of the road voters that he wants to improve their lot. Portugal still has a long way to go before its economy can compete with the rest of Europe.

It has a bloated bureaucracy which stifles new business and, according to a recent report, up to 80 per cent of income from taxation is spent on salaries and pensions for state employees. The success of the government will depend on whether it concentrates on tackling these long-term problems or plays to the gallery. Changes are likely to be painful, but will be easier if there is a feel-good factor and, for this reason, a Prime Minister who entertains may be preferable to one who teaches.