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Portugal foreign minister urges austerity rethink

Portugal’s foreign minister on Sunday advocated a rethink of swingeing austerity measures, a day after mass rallies were staged nationwide against the cuts and the country’s economic woes.

Paulo Portas’s comments follow Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho announcement of tough new moves including an increase in worker social security contributions, combined with a cut in employer contributions, in a bid to create jobs in a country where unemployment has topped 15 percent.

Portas, a key figure in Portugal’s governing centre-right coalition, told reporters the government needs to be receptive to evaluating the austerity measures.

“The government must have an open position to evaluate the situation with social partners and the country’s institutions,” he said.

Portugal’s latest austerity measures led to a barrage of criticism, which culminated Saturday with massive demonstrations in Lisbon and about 30 cities across the country that organisers said attracted more than 100,000 people.

Though Portas opposes the new measures, he said he did not want to break the coalition and plunge the country into political chaos.

The party he heads, the Democratic and Social Centre People’s Party, entered into coalition with Passos Coelho’s Social Democratic Party in June 2011, after elections that ousted the socialists.

Portugal, like other southern European countries including Greece, Spain and Italy, has been broadsided by a devastating financial crisis. In May last year it secured a 78-billion-euro ($102-billion) bailout from the troika of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.

In return, the creditors demanded austerity measures and a reshaping of Portugal’s economy.

Until Saturday, many Portuguese seemed somewhat resigned to the austerity measures, but the most recent moves have clearly increased social discontent.

Another demonstration is set for September 29 in Lisbon.