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Portugal’s ‘ferocious animal’ PM faces toughest battle

Published on 02/06/2011

Two months after he resigned following a budget showdown with parliament, Portugal's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates faces the toughest fight of his political career in an early general election.

The 53-year-old, who has described himself as a “ferocious animal” in the political arena has not lost his rage to win, despite having had to ask for a 78-billion-euro bailout for Portugal from the EU and the IMF.

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

Born on September 6, 1957, to a middle-class family near Vila Real in the north he has said it was Portugal’s 1974 “Carnation Revolution”, which put an end to a 42-year right-wing dictatorship, that awoke him to political life.

After a brief passage through the centre-right Social Democratic Party, he joined the Socialist Party in 1981, when it was in opposition.

His full name is Jose Socrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa, but after entering politics he dropped the family name and began using his middle name as his last name.

His political opponents say that calling himself Socrates, like the ancient Greek philosopher was no more than political marketing.

A civil engineer by training, he was as 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.

Socrates has faced several controversies which have tarnished his image during his six years in power.

He has faced repeated questions over clearance he gave when environment minister for the construction of a shopping mall on protected land near Lisbon, 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 that was built, was finally shelved in July 2010.

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

Elected secretary-general of the Socialists in 2004, just one year later he led the party to its first majority in parliament.

He took office in March 2005 at a time of weak growth and out of control public finances.

Socrates bet on the private sector to revive the economy. He halved the public deficit in two years by adopting unpopular spending cuts and tax hikes that led to noisy street protests.

Despite the opposition to his austerity measures, he managed to be re-elected in the September 2009 general election, in the midst of the global eocnomic downturn, but he did not get a majority in parliament.

To those who accuse him of having forgotten his left-wing origins, Socrates points to the loosening of the nation’s abortion laws, the approval of gay marriage and a gender-parity law passed under his government.

Last year Socrates managed to pass three successive austerity plans — in May, July and November.

The markets nevertheless continued to fear that Portugal would need a financial bailout like the one received by Greece and Ireland.

He announced a fourth austerity plan on March 11, just before the start of an EU summit in Brussels — but he did not consult the opposition or inform Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva.

The gamble failed: on March 23, all five opposition parties rejected the plan in parliament: Socrates’ resigned, sparking early elections.

Two weeks later Portugal had no choice but to ask for external aid to tackle its debt crisis.

Socrates, a divorced father of two sons, is a fan of jogging and rock music.