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‘Ferocious animal’ of Portugal’s politics faces fresh controversy

Portugal’s brash ex-prime minister Jose Socrates, who once described himself as a “ferocious animal”, has again found himself wrapped up in controversy, held for questioning since last week in a fraud probe.

Socrates, pushed from power amid the financial crisis in 2011, was arrested Friday, becoming the first former premier of the country’s post-dictatorship period to be detained in a criminal case.

Along with three other suspects, including his chauffeur, Socrates is caught up in a probe targeting tax fraud, money laundering and corruption.

He appeared in court again Monday to answer questions, and his arrest has created waves in Portugal.

The case has presented another challenge for Socrates, who has argued he is a fearsome contender, describing himself as a “ferocious animal” when it comes to campaigning.

“I am not one to turn his back on difficulties, to run from a fight,” he has said.

He has been no stranger to controversy.

With his elegant bearing and mane of salt-and-pepper hair, his opponents say his choice to shorten his lengthy name to Socrates, like the ancient Greek philosopher, was no more than political marketing.

His full name is Jose Socrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa, but after the rock music fan and avid jogger entered politics he dropped the rest.

Critics call him quick-tempered and authoritarian, yet his hunger to win helped the Socialists to victory in September 2009 despite major economic and social crises in Portugal.

Born to a middle class family in Vila Real in 1957, Socrates has said he was “awakened to politics” by the Carnation Revolution in 1974 which ended 48 years of military dictatorship in Portugal.

After a brief stint as a Social Democrat, he joined the Socialists in 1981. The divorced father of two children would go on to serve as a minister several times.

A civil engineer by training, he was first elected to parliament at the age of 30 and has held several cabinet posts, including that of environment minister under former prime minister Antonio Guterres.

Despite his political success he became tangled in several controversies during his six years in power.

— Diploma questioned —

He has faced repeated questions over clearance he gave for the construction of a shopping mall on protected land near Lisbon when he was environment minister, 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.

There have been questions, too, over the authenticity of his university degree.

Despite holding a minority in parliament he imposed three austerity plans in a row. Yet his efforts failed to convince financial markets of Portugal’s solvency.

Socrates led the Socialists to their first majority in parliament in 2005 just a year after he was elected leader of the party.

He managed to be re-elected in 2009 in the midst of the global economic downturn and stiff opposition to his austerity measures intended to rein in a ballooning public deficit, but lost the majority in parliament.

He resigned in 2011 after some six years in power when his party’s push for a fourth austerity plan fell apart. He resisted calling for international aid as the crisis hit the country.

After he left office Socrates studied philosophy in Paris and worked as a consultant to a Swiss pharmaceutical company before returning to Portugal to start a new career as a commentator on RTP public television.