When Portuguese Prime Minister Jos Scrates resigned in March after his debt-reducing austerity plan was thrown out of the Lisbon parliament many people thought it would be the end of the once popular leftist leader. They may have been wrong.
Jos Scrates: down, but not out?
Since his government collapsed, Scrates has worked hard as acting prime minister to secure a now-essential bailout package with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to patch up Portugals debts and correct budget deficits that have crippled the countrys ability to borrow on international debt markets. This week, he achieved his objective: agreeing to a bailout with austerity measures very similar to those that opposition parties shot down in the parliament in March.
The government has today reached an agreement with the international institutions regarding the financial aid to our country, Scrates said in a televised address on Tuesday. Naturally, there are no financial assistance programs that are not demanding, he added. The times we live in continue to imply efforts and a lot of work. Let no one doubt that.
The 78bn bailout deal will include aid for Portugals cash-strapped banks, while also forcing cuts to high-end pensions and civil service pay key measures to reduce the deficit but which, unsurprisingly, are wildly unpopular with the Portuguese public. Under the terms of the deal, Portugal must slash its budget deficit from 9.1 percent of GDP to 5.9 percent this year, and then reduce it to 3 percent by 2013.
Though few people can be blamed for disliking the idea of losing pay and benefits, it is possible that increasing numbers of Portuguese are slowly coming to see the measures as a necessary evil if the Portuguese economy is to emerge from the debt and deficit quagmire that has put it in the same bailout-recipient basket as Greece and Ireland.
After Scrates Socialist government collapsed in March, President Anbal Cavaco Silva called a snap election for June 5, which, at that time, the main opposition centre-right Social Democrats looked sure to win. By refusing to back Scrates homegrown austerity plan, they had engineered his downfall. In turn, they had also driven Portugal into the arms of the EU and IMF, a humiliating step for a country that already suffered IMF-imposed austerity in the 1980s. However, the Social Democrats confidently assumed they could blame the situation along with Portugals financial troubles and myriad other problems on Scrates government. It looked like a foolproof plan for the opposition, initially confirmed by opinion polls that put them ahead of the Socialists.
Since then, however, the race for Portugals leadership in these troubled times has become increasingly tight and some polls have put Scrates Socialists ahead of the Social Democrats.
The Social Democrats own internal problems and intra-party bickering have not helped matters, especially seen in the light of the Socialists overwhelming support for Scrates. At a Socialist Party conference in April, 97 percent of delegates backed Scrates as their leader and as their candidate for re-election as prime minister.
In an editorial, Pblico newspaper noted that the Socialists had closed ranks behind Scrates and obliterated internal debate. It added that, conversely, internal divisions within the Social Democrats and a series of own goals were threatening what should be an easy election victory for the centre-right party.
Scrates, who first took office in 2005 and won reelection in 2009, is adept at political survival: he managed to remain popular while introducing a raft of economic reforms five years ago. The question now is whether he can achieve the same again.
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