The leader of CDS, the Portuguese conservative party will be in power the next days. He makes rhymes out of sound bites, changes his hat to suit the character, hands out kisses to fishwives and fruit-sellers in fairs and markets, and yet the viability of the government depends on him.
When he was a critical journalist, he used to claim: “I’m genetically against power”. Now he is his third coalition with centre-right PSD (the second in government) as State and Foreign Affairs minister. It was as a journalist in the 1990s, writing pungent editorials against the government in power, that Paulo Portas, 48 years old, built his reputation and became well-known. Heading the team that published O Independente, a right-wing weekly newspaper whose headlines each week denounced the political scandals of the centre-right government of Cavaco Silva (the current president), turned him into one of the most feared and disliked people within politics. In 1995, Portas disclosed in an interview to Visão magazine: “I am very much an individualist, unlike conservative people. If I was ever a member of a party, I would become a dissident six months later”. As it was, things turned out rather differently. (See slideshow of Paulo Portas campaigning)
This statement was made some 16 years ago, and we don’t really know if today Portas is less of an individualist, but he clearly calls himself a conservative now. More to the point, he is the current leader of the conservative party. Moreover, from all the politicians who are presently active, he is the one with the most years of party leadership and the most experienced of the five leaders with a seat in parliament. He also never did become a dissident. He was elected as president of CDS in 1998 and, until today, he only withdrew from this position briefly, for a year and a half between 2005 and 2007.
Portas, the political actor who loves films
Paulo Portas is a real chameleon. When he finds himself among farmers, he wears a traditional farmer cap. When he is visiting a navy vessel, he wears a sailor cap. If he goes to a market, he blends in with the people – to the degree that he became known in the press as “Paulinho das Feiras”, little Paulo of the markets (because he spends most of his time campaigning for that popular vote in traditional markets). When he was minister of national defence, he inspected the troops looking very serious. When addressing journalists, he comes up with the best sound bites. In Parliament, where he is a fearful opponent, he asks questions using rhymes or making puns. He is a natural actor. And he loves films.
In the 1990s, he was a fierce critic of Cavaco Silva and his government, against which he directed the publication of more than 70 damaging scoops related to scandals. He ruined the reputation of some members of PSD and, in an ironic twist of fate, would later share with them the same political lists or the same government cabinet. Years later, he supported Cavaco Silva in his run for president. He was originally against Portugal taking up the Euro, but nowadays never says anything against the common currency. He was a Eurosceptic populist until the day he defined himself as being “Euro-calm”. He practiced his poses and his speeches; he rehearsed his sound bites in front of a mirror. He turned himself into a real professional political actor.
Exploiting political niches
Five years before Paulo Portas was elected leader of CDS in 1998, the party had changed its name to People’s Party (PP) in an attempt to modernise it, a change which was partly inspired in him, while he was still a journalist. As soon as he gained control of its leadership, Portas swiftly changed the party’s name back to its original designation of CDS, and he was quick to ensure a speech focussed on the middle class and on issues regarding safety, but also to politically exploit somewhat untapped niches making specific promises to farmers, pensioners, veterans of the colonial war and retornados who had come back from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa.
Paulo Portas has already been twice in a coalition with the PSD (centre-right), and now the third coalition seems inevitable. In 1999 he joined a coalition with then PSD leader Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, but this alliance was undermined by a court case. Portas had directed an opinion poll centre run by a private university (Universidade Moderna) which was under investigation, and the people involved were later convicted in court. He was never prosecuted, but this case eroded his political image. In the midst of that crisis, as the PSD no longer trusted him as a partner, he ended the pre-electoral coalition in a live television interview. The 1999 European elections were just three months away. Due to his attitude, the leader of PSD resigned and was replaced by José Manuel Durão Barroso (who is currently the president of the European Commission).
Durão Barroso’s partner in government
In those European elections, he and Durão Barroso exchanged insults in a television debate. Three years later they teamed up in a government coalition: Barroso as prime minister, Portas as minister of state and national defence. They both supported the war in Iraq, and Portas made clear that he had an excellent relationship with Donald Rumsfeld, US secretary of defence. During his three years as a minister, Portas’s agenda was marked by military acquisitions and the modernisation of the armed forces: he bought submarines, armoured combat vehicles and airplanes. He also signed several contracts for the acquisition of military material, valued in millions of euros, during the last week before the early elections of 2005, with the caretaker government.
As soon as he left the Ministry of Defence, Portas was besieged by yet another judicial case: the purchase of two German submarines. The case has been under investigation for years by the Portuguese judicial authorities who suspect the existence of kickbacks to finance the CDS, with no practical outcome, but also by German judicial authorities and even by the Greeks (who bought submarines from the same German company). Portas has been able to survive unscathed through all of this.
Experience has changed him. Today he appears to be less populist, has been focussing his discourse on taxation issues (advocating less taxes) but he is still tapping the same market niches. Despite being a conservative, he now presents himself with a speech that is less liberal from an economic standpoint so as to be distinguishable from that of the PSD led by Passos Coelho. In the campaign for the 5 June 2011 he even claimed to be “to the left of PSD”, so as to gain voters from the centre.
João Rebelo, an MP who is close to Portas, defines the CDS leader’s evolution to PDV in these words:
The passing of the years in politics has re-centred him. Not that he lost his convictions, but he has taken up a more moderate tone in expressing things. And he is more mature, he has reached the point of refinement. He is at the very prime for taking up the functions of government, because he is one of the politicians best prepared for the task. Maybe in 2002 [in the Barroso government] he may not have been so well prepared, and therefore it didn’t go so well for him then.”
It is now almost certain that he is about to return to government with the PSD, unless he prefers only a parliamentary agreement. The polls, which are usually unfavourable to him, have predicted a record result of 11% to 13%. He has never surpassed 10% and this dates back to 2009. In the 2011 elections there have been plenty of doubts but one certainty: whatever the outcome, it will always be up to CDS to render the next government viable, whether it be from PS or PSD. Paulo Portas is the central character.
The son of Nuno Portas, a renowned architect, he was born in Lisbon, grew up surrounded by the educated élite and was educated in one of the finest schools in Portugal. His brother – Miguel Portas – is an elected Member of the European Parliament for rival extreme-left party Bloco de Esquerda. The political difference between them could not be greater. Each standing on either extremity of the political field.