Soares ponders another challenge for Belém

news: Soares ponders another challenge for Belém

• Cavaco Silva was 10 years in power as PM
• Cavaco Silva was 10 years in power as PM

FORMER PRESIDENT of the Republic and Socialist Party (PS) founder, Mário Soares, is believed to be considering another run for the presidency. Soares, who turned 80 last December, initially ruled himself out of next January’s contest, but he has come under mounting pressure to stand as a unity candidate for the PS against the probable Social Democrat (PSD) candidate, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, Prime Minister from 1985 to 1995.

Current Prime Minister, José Sócrates, has come out in support of Soares’ possible candidacy. “If he is available, I am certain he would have the support of the party and the country,” he said. Sócrates, in his first comments on the presidential contest, also hailed Soares’ “experience” and “prestige”, saying these qualities could serve to unite Portugal.

Soares, president for 10 years, was a key figure in the transition to democracy following the 1974 revolution. Prime Minister for several spells in the 1970s and 1980s, he is now a venerated elder statesman, “an old aircraft carrier” in the recent words of political pundit Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

Soares was first elected President in March 1986, when, ironically, he defeated another potential candidate in the forthcoming contest, Freitas do Amaral, by less than one per cent of the vote. He was then re-elected in 1991 for a second term with more than 70 per cent of the poll. For most of Soares’ decade as President, Cavaco Silva was Prime Minister, but the Socialists returned to office under António Guterres in 1995.

Soares appeared to have retired from political life after serving five years as a member of the European Parliament. But he acknowledged that Sócrates’ recent declarations have had “an undeniable influence” on his decision. Most observers now believe that he will run, although he has said that he still needs time to consider his candidacy. “Any acceptance on my part will depend on the national mood and would aim to unite the Portuguese and contribute to the country’s stability,” he said. He added that he needed to “consult people in the political, economic and social arenas” before making a final decision.

Sócrates favours Alegre

Soares’ possible candidacy has arisen because of the lack of a suitable candidate from the left. Foreign Minister Freitas do Amaral appears to have ruled himself out of the presidential contest, even though he added the qualifier “never say never”.

Another possible candidate, left-winger Manuel Alegre, is on record as saying he believed a challenge from Freitas do Amaral would be undesirable because the Socialist candidate should unite the left and the centre-left. Alegre was known to be one of Sócrates’ favoured candidates before a possible Soares challenge was mooted. Alegre was one of the defeated candidates for the Socialist Party leadership last September. As the main left-wing challenger, he gained just 15.7 per cent of the vote, well behind José Sócrates’ 80 per cent but ahead of the third candidate, João Soares, who garnered just three per cent.

Cavaco younger and more dynamic

Mário Soares would enjoy a good chance of defeating any opponent but his age could prove to be an obstacle. Soares’ probable opponent, Cavaco Silva, at 66, is 14 years younger and cuts an altogether more dynamic figure. A spokesperson linked to Cavaco Silva said that he and Soares were still “political adversaries”, but that they had developed “a mutual respect” and “esteem” for each other over the years.

Cavaco Silva’s uninterrupted 10 years in power marked the longest of any democratically elected Prime Minister in Portugal. He was also the first Prime Minister to win an absolute majority, a feat he achieved twice. An economic liberaliser who prioritised tax cuts, his period in office was undermined by rising unemployment. He decided not to fight the 1995 general election, but contested the presidency the following year, losing out to the current incumbent, Jorge Sampaio.