Portugal's PM, a determined and pragmatic socialist

24th March 2011, Comments 0 comments

Portugal's Jose Socrates, who resigned as prime minister Wednesday after parliament rejected his latest austerity plan, is a pragmatic socialist often criticised for being authoritarian but praised for his determination.

Described as impatient and incapable of dialogue even by some members of his own party, Socrates vowed to soften his posture after the Socialists lost their absolute majority in parliament in a general election in September 2009.

Born to a middle-class family near Vila Real in the north on September 6, 1957, he has said he "awoke to political life" with Portugal's 1974 "Carnation Revolution" which put an end to a 42-year right-wing dictatorship.

After a brief passage through the centre-right Social Democratic Party, he joined the Socialist Party in 1981 at a time when it was in opposition.

His full name is Jose Socrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa, but after entering politics he dropped the family name.

Calling himself Socrates, like the ancient Greek philosopher, was a bit of political marketing, his opponents suggest.

A civil engineer by training, Socrates was first elected to parliament aged 30 and went on to hold several cabinet posts, including that of environment minister under former prime minister Antonio Guterres.

A divorced father of two sons who is a fan of jogging and rock music, Socrates has faced several controversies which have tarnished his image during his six years in power.

He has faced repeated questions over the authenticity of his university degree as well as over the authorisation he gave as environment minister for the construction of a shopping mall on protected land near Lisbon just days before a 2002 general election in which the Socialists lost power.

An investigation into the so-called "Freeport" case, named after the shopping mall, was finally shelved in July 2010.

Elected secretary-general of the Socialists in 2004, Socrates led the party to its first majority in parliament just one year later.

He took office in March 2005 at a time of weak growth and out-of-control public finances.

Socrates bet on the private sector to revive the economy, and he managed to halve the public deficit in two years by adopting unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes which led to noisy street protests.

Despite the opposition to his austerity measures, he managed to win re-election in September 2009 general elections in the midst of the global economic downturn, although without a majority in parliament.

To those who accuse him of forgetting his left-wing origins, Socrates points to the loosening of the nation's abortion laws, the approval of gay marriage and a gender parity law passed under his tenure.

Last year Socrates managed to pass three successive austerity plans -- in May, July and November -- but despite these cost-cutting measures markets continued to fear that Portugal would need a financial bailout like the one received by Greece and Ireland.

He announced a fourth austerity plan on March 11, just before the start of a summit in Brussels, without consulting the opposition or informing Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

Faced with an outcry against the new round of austerity measures, Socrates once again threatened to quit if his programme was rejected, even as he vowed to stand for re-election in case of an early vote.

"I am not one to turn his back on difficulties, who runs from a fight," he has said.

© 2011 AFP

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