Portugal's plodding premier has the last laugh

4th October 2015, Comments 0 comments

With his dapper suits and fine baritone voice, Portugal's Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho could give Silvio Berlusconi a run for his money on a concert bill of political crooners.

But for most of his four years at the helm of western Europe's poorest country, he has had precious little to sing about.

Instead his country's fate could have come straight from one of the songs of heartache and despair so typical of fado, the Portuguese blues -- record unemployment, emigration and crippling debt.

But the stubborn centrist finally has crowing rights.

His victory in Sunday's general election is not just important for Portugal. It could signal a turning of the tide in Europe, with austerity governments in Spain and Ireland also about to face the voters in the coming months.

Passos Coelho stuck to the letter of his country's punishing bailout deal even though he himself knew it could be political suicide.

"If I have to one day lose an election to save the country, so what," he told his centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) a year after taking power in 2012.

While even his greatest fans would admit that Passos Coelho is not exactly charismatic, his determined, plodding style seemed in step with straitened times.

For him freeing Portugal from the bonds of its European Union and IMF creditors became a patriotic duty, with that goal finally achieved in May 2014 when it exited the bailout done by the previous Socialist government.

"Portugal has surmounted one of the worst crises of its recent history," he declared, resigned to the fact that his name would forever "remain association with the worst consequences of this crisis".

Ferocious public spending cuts caused huge anger and suffering, with the opposition accusing him of going further even that the country's creditors demanded.

- 'Olympian calm' -

The backlash took its toll on the youthful 51-year-old. Passos Coelho needed his famed "Olympian calm" to resist massive anti-austerity demonstrations which threatened to unseat him in September 2012, forcing him to backtrack on a hated measure to lower social charges for employers while increasing them on workers.

The following summer his parliamentary majority was jeopardised by the resignations of his finance chief Vitor Gaspar and foreign affairs minister Paulo Portas.

He only held the government together by persuading Portas, the leader of the conservative Popular Party -- his junior coalition partner -- to stay on as his deputy prime minister.

Unemployment may have fallen from a record 17.5 percent two years ago, but many analysts argue that it is because Portugal has exported the problem.

Emigration is at a 50-year high, with many highly educated young people leaving for northern Europe or Portugal's resource-rich former African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

Around 120,000 people a year have left since the first of the punishing austerity measures demanded in return for the 78-billion-euro ($88 billion) bailout were put in place in 2011.

- Tarnished reputation -

A sizeable chunk of the electorate will never forgive the premier for pushing through the mixture of cuts, tax rises and pro-market reforms demanded by its lenders.

While Passos Coelho can point to renewed if modest economic growth, he was badly damaged by a controversy over his failure to pay social security contributions for five years -- a situation he claims he has since put right.

Still the row tarnished his image as a paragon of upright frugality who lives in a modest apartment in an unfashionable Lisbon suburb.

Born in the central city of Coimbra, he grew up in colonial Angola, where his father was a doctor. The family returned to Portugal after independence in 1975, settling in the northern town of Vila Real.

It was there that he followed his father into the PSD at the age of 13, quickly rising up through the ranks of the party as a student activist before entering parliament at 26.

Twice married -- once to the singer Fatima Padinha, with whom he had two children -- he is the father of three daughters.


© 2015 AFP

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