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Portugal’s Costa: an affable Socialist who must now ‘walk the talk’

Published on 24/11/2015

Affable former Lisbon mayor and now Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa is a political veteran who is far more popular than his Socialist Party which toppled the conservative government in a dramatic vote.

A seasoned negotiator, the 54-year-old Costa tied up with Communists, Greens and the Left Bloc — which is close to Greece’s governing Syriza — to ultimately oust the 11-day-old conservative minority government.

The anti-austerity alliance is the first of its kind since the birth of a democratic Portugal, and had seemed unimaginable just weeks ago due to differences between the groups.

But it pulled off the feat by beating former prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right coalition — which had won the October 4 election but lost an absolute majority — in a parliamentary vote on November 11.

Costa, who was born on February 17, 1961 in Lisbon, joined the youth chapter of the Socialist party at 14 — not surprising for a boy whose mother Maria Antonia Palla was a socialist and a journalist and his father, Orlando da Costa, was a well-known Communist writer.

A descendent of a patrician family in the former Portuguese colony of Goa in India, Costa’s easygoing manner won him admirers and saw him rising rapidly through the ranks.

Nicknamed “Babush” or “kid” in Konkani, the native language of Goa, Costa however confesses to having a temper but says he lets out his anger.

“One thing is sure, I don’t let things fester,” he said.

– ‘Always deliver more than I promise’ –

At 34, he was named secretary of state for parliamentary affairs and then served as justice minister between 1999 and 2002.

He then did a short one-year stint at the European Parliament in 2004, resigning to become minister of state and internal administration in the government of Jose Socrates. He resigned in 2007 to become Lisbon’s mayor.

Despite being hamstrung by the fact that the Socialists were in charge when Portugal had to go cap in hand to Europe and the IMF in 2011, Costa vowed to lift the country off its knees in the same way as he raised spirits in the capital, moving his office into the drug and prostitution-infested Mouraria area when he first came to power in 2007.

To add to his problems, everywhere he turns is the spectre of his old mentor Jose Socrates — the former socialist prime minister who had been put under house arrest accused of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

Costa, tried to surf the anti-austerity wave sweeping Europe after Greek premier Alexis Tsipras first took power in Athens earlier this year, but as Syriza’s radical ambitions unravelled in the face of German intransigence, he has been back-peddling wildly.

“The Socialist Party is not Syriza,” he has been forced to insist to counter government claims that the left’s return to power would lead to a repeat of tax and spend policies.

In an attempt to head off the critics, Costa — who likes to relax by doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles — produced costings for his campaign promises, including a return to a 35-hour week for public servants and a rise in the minimum wage.

“I always deliver more than I promise,” he declared, pointing to his record as mayor of Lisbon, where he was elected three times, with a bigger majority each time.

But it is for his constant smile and his common touch as a lover of Portugal’s twin passions of football and fado that he is best known.

Now the question remains whether he and his alliance will be up to the huge challenges facing them and effectively end weeks of political turmoil.