Soares and Cavaco renew hostilities

news: Soares and Cavaco renew hostilities

Cavaco Silva has not yet formally announced his candidature, preferring to wait until after the local elections this Sunday (October 9). But he is the clear favourite – the most recent polls put the 66-year-old former Prime Minister on 48 per cent of the vote, tantalisingly close to the 50 per cent required to secure outright victory and forestall a second round.

His main rival, Mário Soares, the grandfather of Portuguese politics, will turn 81 this December. Bochechas (“fat cheeks” as he is affectionately known by the public) has tried to dispel concerns about his age. “I will be a stimulus for everyone who refuses to die before his or her time,” he said. Soares, who served 10 years as President between 1986 and 1996, following two shorter spells as Prime Minister, said his candidacy would also serve as an antidote to the country’s prevailing mood of pessimism and apathy.

Soares’ decision contradicts a statement he gave last December when he said it would be a mistake to go for Belém again. Explaining his change of heart, Soares said it was his “civic duty” to stand, because a credible left wing candidate had failed to emerge.

The only other possible heavyweight contender, former Socialist Prime Minister António Guterres, ruled himself out when he became the head of the United Nations’ Refugee Agency earlier this year. In any case, it was unlikely that Guterres, who presided over a period of economic decline, would have drawn much support against Cavaco Silva, a highly skilled politician whose 10-year reign was the longest of any democratically elected Prime Minister in Portuguese history.

Born in Boliqueime in the Algarve and from a lower middle class family, Cavaco Silva was also the first Prime Minister to win an overall majority, a feat he achieved twice. He was narrowly defeated for the presidency 10 years ago by the present incumbent, Jorge Sampaio.

Relationship was strained

Soares’ time as President coincided almost exactly with Cavaco Silva’s period as Prime Minister. Little love was lost between the two men – their relationship was cordial but strained.

Cavaco Silva, a right-wing ‘Thatcherite’ privatisation pioneer, was the antithesis of Soares, a “cuddly” consensus seeking left-winger. In a recent interview, Soares charged that Cavaco Silva was unsuited to the presidency because he lacked the humanitarian image required. In the past, Cavaco Silva has countered that Soares exceeded his constitutional powers when he was in Belém by briefing journalists against the government and delivering too many speeches.

Although the Portuguese presidency does carry with it the ultimate prerogative of dissolving parliament and invoking elections – the so-called atomic bomb that Sampaio used against Santana Lopes’ government last year – the office is largely apolitical and ceremonial. Hence the incumbent is usually the most popular figure in the country because he is above the political fray. But Soares took advantage of the presidency to tour the country and deliver sermons to the nation, some of which were seen as thinly veiled criticisms of the government.In recent years, unlike many politicians on the left, Soares has not trodden the well-worn path towards the political centre. He opposed the Iraq war, predicting that it could spark a great crisis of capitalism, and has denounced multinationals and globalisation.

Four left-wingers head

to a funeral

Apart from Soares, there are currently three other left-wing candidates for the presidency: Francisco Louçã of the Left Bloc, Jéronimo de Sousa from the Communist Party and Manuel Alegre from the Socialist Party.

Louçã and de Sousa have been jostling for supremacy on the far left for some time. Louçã, the 48-year-old author of several books and professor of Economics at Lisbon’s Instituto Superior de Economia e Gestão (Higher Institute of Economics and Management), has the air of a perennial university student.

He radiated a tangible disappointment on the night of the February 20 general election when the Socialist Party’s huge margin of victory destroyed any chance that his party may have had to exert influence in a coalition. He was also hoping to eclipse the Communist Party whose recent fortunes seemed to be in decline until Jéronimo de Sousa, a 58-year-old former metallurgist with the common touch, succeeded the dour Carlos Carvalhas last year. But, in truth, both Louçã’s and de Sousa’s candidatures are purely nominal, merely a battle for fourth place in the first round.

A more serious left-wing candidate is Manuel Alegre, a 69-year-old poet and the “conscience” of the Socialist Party, who was defeated by José Sócrates for the party leadership last year. Alegre says he is standing in order to boost the left-wing vote, hoping to trigger a second round and victory for a progressive candidate. But, despite Alegre’s claim to have the support of senior party members as well as prominent musicians and writers, Sócrates has made it clear that the Socialist Party is backing Soares.

No doubt the various left-wing candidates and their factions will engage in fratricidal bickering in the months to come. Meanwhile, Cavaco Silva’s journey to Belém looks unstoppable. No other conservative candidate has so far emerged to contest the right wing vote, paving the way for the Social Democrats and the CDS-PP (Popular Party) to offer unanimous support to Cavaco Silva. On the basis of all the opinion polls, the four left-wingers concerned are heading for political funerals in January.