Santana Lopes is new PM

Pedro Santana Lopes, the leader of Portugal’s ruling centre-right social democratic government, was formally appointed the Prime Minister designate last Monday. “Now I will begin the necessary talks to form a new government,” said the former Lisbon Mayor after a 40-minute meeting with President Jorge Sampaio. The new administration is due to take office on July 19. “He will present the names to the President who will formally approve the composition of the new government,” a spokesperson in the President’s office told Resident reporter GABRIEL HERSHMAN. His appointment was confirmed after President Sampaio had earlier rejected calls for fresh elections, a decision that cleared the path for Santana Lopes to accede to the top job.

Early indications are that there will be no radical departures in policy from the Barroso administration. Sampaio announced his decision in a live televised address last Friday night, so ending what has been described as Portugal’s gravest political crisis since the 1974 Revolution.

Sampaio’s address to the nation came after weeks of uncertainty in the wake of Durão Barroso’s appointment as head of the European Commission in Brussels. It followed intense lobbying from both sides of the political divide, culminating last Friday in a series of meetings with members of the State Council, an advisory body composed of senior politicians, former Presidents and Prime Ministers.

“It has been a complex decision, given the controversy over the best way of dealing with the problem,” Sampaio said in his address. Provided the government retained its cohesion, “the resignation or permanent incapacitation of the Prime Minister is not sufficient reason, on its own, to impose the need for an early general election”, he added.

He explained that, “it is not up to the President of the Republic to govern” and reminded his audience that a government is elected for four years (the present coalition government has been in power since 2002). Nevertheless, he promised to monitor closely the new government and the actions of Santana Lopes, particularly with respect to Europe, foreign policy, defence, social justice and budgetary prudence.

But controversy over Santana Lopes’ appointment is unlikely to die down. In a political career spanning more than two decades, the new Prime Minister has had little experience of top government, having held only a number of minor offices, and most opinion polls have indicated overwhelming support for elections.

Inevitably, there will now be a reshuffle of senior ministers. One thing would seem fairly certain – Manuela Ferreira Leite, the most vocal opponent from inside the party of Lopes’ promotion, an event she has described as a “coup d’état”, will not remain as Finance Minister. Indeed, early signs were that Santana Lopes was pressing for António Borges, the economist and ex-vice Governor of the Bank of Portugal, to take over the finance portfolio. The former Minister for Public Works, Transport and Housing, António Carmona Rodrigo, will take over as the new Lisbon Mayor, the post vacated by Santana Lopes.

Rodrigues resigns over

“personal and political defeat”

Sampaio’s announcement triggered the immediate resignation of opposition Socialist leader Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues. Sampaio’s decision infuriated Rodrigues, whose party had scored a resounding victory in the recent European elections. If President Sampaio has decided to call fresh legislative elections, opinion polls had pointed to a likely Socialist victory and Rodrigues’ appointment as Prime Minister. Instead, Rodrigues tendered his resignation as socialist leader, interpreting the President’s refusal to call an election as a personal rebuff and a testament to his lack of political influence.

Announcing his decision, an emotional Rodrigues said he was very ‘disappointed’ with the President’s declaration: “I have to recognise that I have suffered a personal and political defeat,” he said. “It is now up to the Socialist Party to choose a new Secretary-General capable of confronting the new political situation,” he added. Despite his party’s strong showing in recent European elections there has always been a question mark hanging over Rodrigues’ leadership and what many commentators have seen as his lack of political gravitas. Rodrigues apparently interpreted his failure to influence the President on such an important constitutional matter, as evidence of Sampaio’s lack of faith in his ability to lead an alternative government.

Other fringe left-wing parties – the Communist Party led by Carlos Carvalhas and the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc), led by Francisco Louca – were vitriolic in their condemnation of the President’s decision. Louca said that Sampaio “had capitulated to pressures and establishment interests”, while Carvalhas said his party “expresses the most fundamental disagreement with the decision of the President of the Republic which will permit the entry of a new government with an eroded mandate.” But the PSD’s coalition partner in government, the right-wing CDS-PP, led by Paulo Portas, welcomed the President’s verdict: “We respect the decision of the President of the Republic and we are in full agreement with it,” he said in a short address to journalists. “We would also respect other decisions even if we disagreed with them,” he added.

Council of State kept to party lines

The 18 ‘wise men’ would have had their chance to express their point of view. Independent of political tendencies and opinions, the council is a strictly consultative organ and, as such, its deliberations are not particularly binding. Two of the members of the council are former presidents, namely Ramalho Eanes and Mario Soares. The President nominates some members, such as Vítor Constâncio, the former socialist leader and Carlos Carvalhas, the Communist leader. Others are nominated by the national assembly, including Defence Secretary Paulo Portas, ex-president of the National Assembly, Almeida Santos and Ferro Rodrigues, the former head of the Socialist Party.

All indications are that exchanges between the President and members of the Council of State, who shuffled in and out of Sampaio’s office throughout Friday, were dignified. But one report suggested a tense encounter between outgoing Prime Minister Durão Barroso and Mario Soares. The former Socialist President apparently pointed his finger at Barroso and blamed him for the current political crisis. “This is all your fault,” Soares is alleged to have said at which point Barroso apparently walked out of the meeting. The decisions of the members would seem to have been fairly predictable, with PSD politicians voting against fresh elections and Socialists voting in favour.