Reform or decline, warns new President.jpg

Reform or decline, warns new President

INCOMING PRESIDENT Aníbal Cavaco Silva delivered a forceful inaugural speech to parliament last week, marking a radical break from the softly-softly approach of his socialist predecessor, Jorge Sampaio. All signs are that Portugal’s first centre-right President since the 1974 Revolution will be a mover and shaker as well as a keen scrutiniser of the government, reports The Resident’s Gabriel Hershman.

There was relatively little talk of consensus and unity – the usual buzzwords of incoming Presidents. Instead, Cavaco Silva listed the problems Portugal must overcome if it is to regain its competitiveness. Underlying his sober and bold address was the implication that further decline was inevitable without urgent action.

Right-wingers hailed his speech as groundbreaking. Members of the ruling Socialist Party greeted it with polite applause. But, predictably, the far-left reacted coldly – a polo necked Francisco Louçã, head of the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), commented that it was more like the speech of a Prime Minister than a President, and Communist Party leader Jerónimo de Sousa noted “a striking convergence” between the policies of the (Socialist) government and the new President.

After a bruising election, Cavaco Silva said it was time to set aside petty divisions, recriminations and squabbles and get to work. “The Portuguese people expect action and they want to know that the political class is ready to overcome difficulties and come together,” he said. But former President Mário Soares, one of Cavaco Silva’s key opponents in the presidential race, apparently resisted the call for reconciliation – he refused to clap and pointedly avoided the time-honoured tradition of congratulating the President after his address.

New president highlights growth, corruption, training and social security

Consistent with his election campaign, the new President cited the importance of the economy. “The first challenge is to create the conditions for growth, overcome unemployment and catch up with the rest of the European Union. Until we achieve this, everything else will be harder. Each generation has the duty to bequeath a more culturally and economically developed society to the next generation. And this is what young people have the right to expect from us,” he said.

Cavaco Silva added that Portugal faced stiff competition from Eastern Europe, but said that its location, in the extreme southwest of Europe, facing the Atlantic Ocean, could reap advantages in trading opportunities. He cited the need to improve education and training, called for more equality of opportunity and an end to the high dropout rates in secondary education. “In today’s world, it’s vital that schools teach people to learn rather than merely teach people,” he added.

Cavaco Silva said the justice system needed to be strengthened, highlighting the unacceptability of long delays in judicial processes. “Justice is the responsibility of the state and the first and last guarantor of rights and freedoms. It is everyone’s responsibility to contribute actively to Portugal, so that we have a justice system that inspires confidence in people, punishes violations of law and does not obstruct development,” he said.

The state cannot do everything

He said he was concerned about the sustainability of the social security system. “There is a growing unease in Portugal, as in other EU countries, about the state’s capacity to guarantee the future payment of pensions. It’s a very serious matter, demanding the closest attention from all our politicians,” he said. He announced he would like to see a debate about the financing of the country’s social security system as well as a strategy to address two significant trends – the increased number of elderly people and a declining birth rate.