The new portuguese prime minister sings opera and is a liberal whose measures could be music to Angela Merkel’s ears. She called him “Mr nice guy”. But not after he forced early elections in Portugal
In a warm afternoon in Évora, one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal, Pedro Passos Coelho stopped to greet a foreign couple. They were Australian, he was in his May 2011 election campaign and, being foreigners, the couple would certainly not be voting for PSD (centre-right party). To the tourists’ astonishment, he stopped along with the caravan of media and people who surrounded him, and said: “I’m running for prime minister job [sic]“. Weeks later, two days after winning the 5 June election, during a dinner with journalists, he was greeted by a different group of Australian tourists who had before them the elected prime minister of Portugal. He has really got the job. But at this stage it’s certainly not an easy job.
At the age of 46, Passos Coelho will be leading the most demanding government to have ever existed in Portuguese democracy. The memorandum signed with the European Union and the IMF in May 2011 is the most difficult programme that a prime minister has ever had to implement in Portugal. And it will certainly be one of the most unpopular.
Passos Coelho spent his adolescence and youth in the business of politics, he then removed himself from it and went to work in the private sector, until making a come back some ten years later, winning first the leadership of the PSD, and then the government a year later. Before presenting his electoral programme he listed to hundreds of people. Passos is a good listener. But once he has made up his mind it is hard to make him backtrack.
The Portuguese prime minister lives with his wife and two daughters in a flat in Massamá, a Lisbon suburb more associated with the lower classes who haven’t the means to live in the upmarket area of Estoril or even in Lisbon than with the country’s political elites. His friends consider him to be a normal person. Passos is cold, rarely allowing himself to be carried away by emotion, he is extremely polite and genteel in his demeanour, yet always retains a certain reserve. In politics he acts rationally and at times even hides his intentions from those who surround him: sometimes, not even his closest aides have an inkling of what he will do. In international relations he is still a mystery. He started off well with Angela Merkel, then ceased being so well regarded, and now we’ll have to see how this relationship, which is essential for the Portuguese state, evolves.
Merkel’s nice guy
So, you’re the nice guy!”, remarked German Chancellor Angela Merkel the first time she met him, during a meeting of the EPP (European People’s Party) in mid 2010. In the midst of the Greek crisis turmoil, Pedro Passos Coelho, 46, had only just arrived at PSD‘s leadership (centre-right party, currently in the opposition) with a prudent stance. Portugal needed to approve budget cuts and the raising of taxes without delay. At the time, Passos supported that first austerity package proposed by socialist prime-minister José Socrates. (See slideshow of Passos Coelho in campaign)
Yet, ten months later, Mrs Merkel was to criticise Passos Coelho because he had failed to approve the socialist government’s fourth austerity plan. The failure to approve the Growth and Stability Program (GSP) in parliament last March, resulted directly in the resignation of the government and the call for early elections. All opposition parties voted against it, but if Passos Coelho had approved the package, it would have passed.
The then “not so nice guy” precipitated not only the call for early elections, but also Portugal’s request for a bailout from European institutions and the International Monetary Fund: €78bn and a memorandum of understanding with the troika that contains harsh measures for the Portuguese. During the present election campaign, José Socrates has been repeatedly accusing Passos Coelho of being responsible for the bailout, since he himself was doing everything he possibly could to avoid it. Passos Coelho replies that the request for a bailout should have been made much sooner and that Socrates’s government drove the country to bankruptcy. Mrs Merkel, in her turn, has to explain to her voters why such a nice guy is obliging German tax-payers to sort out the mess in yet another southern country.
From Africa to PSD youth leader
Pedro Passos Coelho is a keen opera singer and enjoys Wagner, but that alone does not make him a German. On the contrary. His present, second wife is from Guinea Bissau (in the picture). And he has a very Portuguese experience of life which, in a certain sense, greatly differs from that of other Europeans: he spent his childhood in Africa, in the city of Silva Porto (present-day Kuito), on Angola’s central plateau, when this country was still a Portuguese colony. His father, a pneumologist doctor, worked in a sanatorium, while he played and ran around the local cubatas (huts). Passos Coelho belongs to a category of Portuguese who were highly stigmatised during the 1970s: the so-called retornados who had returned from Africa during the decolonialisation process, in the aftermath of the 25 April 1974 revolution that had brought to an end the 48 years of fascist dictatorship.
Used to the freedom of Africa, he moved with his family to Vila Real in the northern region of Trás-os-Montes, one of the most remote, backward and conservative in Portugal, especially in those days. The contrast could not have been greater. Yet it was there that he took his first steps in politics. He was initially attracted to the Portuguese Communist Youth, and even took part in one of their camps, but in the end he veered towards the right and joined the JSD, the youth branch of the Social Democratic Party (PSD).
He quickly rose through the ranks and in 1990 became leader of the JSD, while the current president of the republic, Cavaco Silva, was leader of the PSD and prime minister of Portugal. Until 1999, Passos Coelho was an elected member of parliament (MP), and he never finished the university degree in Mathematics in which he had enrolled.
Casting call for My Fair Lady
The young MP lived for politics with a few breaks to relax and sing the fado with friends after dinner parties in Lisbon’s nightlife district of Bairro Alto. He had married young, with the singer of one of Portugal’s first girl-bands, with whom he had two daughters and would later on divorce.
Some years ago he took part in the casting call for the Portuguese adaptation of the musical My Fair Lady, by acclaimed Portuguese theatre director Filipe la Féria. He had flair for it, but ended up not being chosen for the cast. His singing teacher had suggested it might be good to try out something for real, other than the comfort of his regular lessons. At the beginning of the campaign for the 5 June 2001 elections he surprised a traditional polyphonic singing group from the Alentejo, in the town of Milfontes (on the country’s south-western coast), when he appeared before the television cameras singing traditional songs in his baritone voice.
The most liberal of social democrats
When he ceased being an MP, Passos Coelho went back to university. He was awarded a degree in Economics at the age of 35, after which he joined Fomentinvest, a group of companies that provide environmental services, whose administrator is one of the founders of the PSD, Ângelo Correia – a former minister of the interior in the 1980s who has strong connections with Arab businessmen. Until 2010, Passos Coelho was the group’s CFO and was directly responsible for companies that oversaw waste management, waste collection and waste disposal units. One of the companies he managed was recently found guilty in court and charged a €60,000 fine for polluting adjacent lands.
To win the PSD leadership Passos Coelho had to run twice: the first time in 2008, which he lost to Manuela Ferreira Leite, and the second in 2010, against two opponents, which he won by a landslide. Despite never having heard him sing, some of the former mr nice guy’s propositions would be music to Mrs Merkel’s ears. Passos Coelho is the most liberal of all the PSD leaders. He subscribes with no great difficulty to the majority of the measures proposed by the troika and even goes further in some aspects, like on the subject of privatisations. He has been a long time defender of the privatisation of public bank Caixa Geral de Depósitos, and in his government programme he promises to list minority stake in Caixa Geral de Depósitos, as soon as the IMF has left.
Last update: 2011-06-08