EMBATTLED Prime Minister, Santana Lopes, gave a robust defence of his government’s policies at a lunch hosted recently by British, French, German, Spanish and Dutch Chambers of Commerce.
Santana Lopes, leader of the Social Democrats (PSD), said that he had flu but assured his audience that this did not form part of his “strategy of victimisation”, an ironic aside given his blistering attacks on the media, pollsters and President Sampaio. It was a forthright performance, marked by polite applause. But, under the surface, one sensed an increasingly forlorn figure, aware that his political obituary is already being written as the February 20 election draws nearer.
Faced with a batch of recent opinion polls showing the Socialist Party consolidating its lead, he again lashed out at President Sampaio, saying that the circumstances behind parliament’s dissolution were unparalleled in any other country. He also blamed the burgeoning public sector budget on the mismanagement of his Socialist predecessors. But, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s most controversial remarks came after his prepared speech. Fielding questions from TV crews, he repeated an allegation that he had made the day before, at a party rally in Olhão, that polling organisations were preparing a “mega fraud” against his party. He also said that sections of the press were orchestrating campaigns against him, after his tax affairs had come under scrutiny, and he declined to reveal the composition of his future cabinet in the event of victory, saying this would be “impossible” for either him or his main opponent, José Sócrates.
Fiscal competence is emphasised
During his address, Santana Lopes forecast that last year’s structural deficit would be around 3.9 per cent of GDP. But he added that the overall deficit, taking into account windfall measures, would be below the 2.8 per cent confirmed for 2003. This compares to a five per cent estimate from Pires de Lima, the vice president of the CDS-PP. The real figures will be substantiated in due course and then submitted to the European Commission.
Santana Lopes blamed the previous Socialist administration for bequeathing to him the current bloated state sector, on which the government currently spends 15 per cent of GDP. But he stressed that spending on the state sector only grew four per cent last year, as opposed to 10 per cent in the Socialist era. “If, instead of 22,000 public sector workers per year, the (previous) government had hired just half that number, we would have had a surplus in 2004,” he said. This was a reference to one of the key planks of his party’s manifesto, a reduction in the weight of the state sub-sector to 11 per cent of GDP. His announcement also comes after new figures showed that the state sub-sector’s deficit worsened by 10 per cent last year compared to 2003.
Santana denies tax debt
Responding to a question after his speech, Santana Lopes said he no longer owed money in back taxes, but admitted he had had arrears in the past. He said he would confirm that there were no outstanding debts via a certificate from Lisbon’s Finance Services.
Santana’s tax affairs first came under scrutiny in the newspaper, A Capital, which reported that he was the subject of two separate fiscal investigations. One related to unpaid taxes for 1999, to the amount of 8,012 euros, which should have been paid before August 2003. The other concerned the alleged retention of IVA (value added tax).
Earlier, the Socialist party had said that, if it is confirmed that Santana Lopes owed money, then this would “fly in the face of his public pronouncements about fighting fraud and fiscal evasion”. But the Prime Minister denied any irregularity. A note from the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office said the matter arose from the sale of a property in 1999, stating that the legal period for reinvesting the money, arising from the sale, had elapsed, so creating a revision to the Prime Minister’s tax bill for that year.
In other developments, former Socialist Prime Minister, António Guterres, has been sharing platforms with current PS leader, José Sócrates. In a show of unity, rival Socialist leadership contenders, João Soares and Manuel Alegre, who were defeated last September, also shared a platform with the party’s leader.
Meanwhile, Communist Party leader, Jerónimo de Sousa, has conceded that post-election deals with other “left-wing parties” were possible. But he said he was still “profoundly disturbed” by certain parts of the Socialist manifesto, in particular health privatisation, raising the age for pensions’ entitlements and the absence of a commitment to revoke the Work Code. He also said his party’s offer of dialogue did not mean he was offering “a blank cheque” to anyone and that an outright majority for the PS would be “a bad thing”.
Polls point to clear Socialist win
A recent batch of polls contained grim reading for the PSD. A poll carried out by Lisbon’s Catholic University showed that the PS has the backing of 46 per cent, against only 28 per cent for the PSD, although nearly a third of people were still undecided. Another poll, carried out by Marktest for Diário de Notícias, has the PS on 45 per cent and the PSD on 28 per cent. A further blow to Santana Lopes was that 83 per cent of respondents thought the state of the economy was either “bad” or “very bad”.
CDS-PP, the PSD’s coalition partner in government, also declined in one of the polls, from seven per cent to 6.3 per cent, leading party vice president, Pires de Lima, to allege that “the party is consistently underestimated in pre-election polls”. Party leader Paulo Portas, speaking over the weekend, warned against abstentions in the election and said it was vital that his party secured third place above the parties of the “far-left”. But CDS-PP distanced itself from Santana Lopes who, angered by differences in recent polls, threatened to “prosecute” polling organisations if their election forecasts prove unfounded.
But Luís Queirós, president of the Administration Council of the Marktest Group, said the results were entirely accurate. “These declarations (from Santana Lopes) do not worry us a great deal – we don’t take them seriously,” Queirós said, adding that, if Santana Lopes wins the election, he will have to prosecute those people whose opinions were canvassed in the polls.
The president of the Association of Businesses for the Study of Markets and Public Opinion, António Salvador, also warned Santana Lopes that his accusations could lead PSD supporters to choose not to reply to canvassers. For this reason, he said the Prime Minister should re-think “how he should respond to the polls”.
Santana attacks previous
In his most recent comments, the Prime Minister said he opposed homosexual marriages and challenged opposition parties to declare their position on this and abortion: “There are fixed postures in the Socialist party defending marriages between same-sex couples. That is not our position. We defend the concept of a balanced society, one with rules that respects differences,” he said.
José Sócrates, replying to Santana Lopes’ comments, made clear his party’s opposition to both gay marriage and adoption by gay couples. So far, the only party leader to publicly support gay marriages is Francisco Louçã of the Bloco de Esquerda. Louçã criticised Santana for his alleged frivolous tone during the campaign.Santana has poured scorn over the last Guterres (Socialist) government, saying it had led the country “into the mire”. He also accused the PS of keeping quiet over controversial issues such as the budget, taxation, SCUTS and Iraq. “The Portuguese people have to decide between a reformist and stable government, led by the PSD, or one from the Socialist Party, led by the same group as António Guterres,” he said.
He also repeated attacks against the press, political analysts and television commentators, saying they were “professional mourners” and “prophets of doom” who delighted in running the country down. Gabriel Hershman