PM Socrates, a stubborn fighter in Portugal poll

By Andrei Khalip

LISBON, June 2 (Reuters) – Caretaker Prime Minister Jose Socrates is a hardened fighter whose ability to put a positive spin on defeats and counterattack is likely to leave him a close second in Portugal’s election despite its economic crisis.

Accused of arrogance and being unrealistic about the economy by the opposition, which claims he left Portugal with no option but to seek a bailout, Socrates has minimised the impact on his party’s standing in polls ahead of a June 5 snap ballot.

The Socialists have polled more than 30 percent of voting intentions, just a few points behind the leading Social Democrats and not far off the 36.6 percent with which they won the 2009 election.

Socrates, who used to fence in university and is an avid long-distance runner, famously said he can be “a fierce animal” when he believes he is right.

He has certainly fought as a predator, even when wounded, defying all the odds.

He resigned in March, a year and a half into his second term, after the opposition rejected his minority Socialist administration’s latest austerity plan.

The government’s collapse caused already sky-high borrowing costs to soar further, forcing the country to finally ask the European Union and IMF for rescue loans.

Socrates blamed the opposition for having triggered the political crisis at the worst possible moment “out of greed for power” that harmed Portugal.

The grey-haired telegenic smart dresser — looking confident as ever — portrayed the preliminary bailout terms as a fine bargain for Portugal and a victory of his now only caretaking government when he presented them in May.

The opposition rightly accused him of not mentioning some of the less attractive aspects, such as the inevitable higher taxes and potential to cause recession, but Socrates did gain an advantage when everyone had expected him to sink like a stone.

His continued counterattack has called the rightist opposition destroyers of social guarantees for workers — one of the achievements of the 1974 “carnation revolution” that overthrew a fascist dictatorship in Portugal.

Zeroing in on his Social Democrat main rival Pedro Passos Coelho’s lack of government experience, Socrates constantly attacks him as being unprepared and irresponsible.

As a result, he has significantly narrowed the gap in polls separating his party from the Social Democrats and has even overtaken them on a few occasions. Analysts agree his odds of winning the election are smaller than Passos Coelho’s, but do not write off the experienced campaigner completely.

A market-friendly moderate, Socrates entered parliament in 1987 before obtaining a degree in civil engineering in 1995, and was environment minister between 1999 and 2000.

He won the leadership of his party in 2004 and the following year led it to its biggest victory, winning 45 percent of votes and an absolute majority in parliament.

His supporters credit his determination and tough command style for fixing the Portuguese economy in 2005-2008, returning the budget deficit to below the euro zone limit of 3 percent of GDP and boosting growth, before the global financial crisis.

Socrates is a staunch pro-European and lists leading the negotiations for EU members to sign the Lisbon Treaty during the Portuguese presidency in 2007 as one of his key achievements.

Socrates introduced long-needed reforms in education, justice and public administration despite stiff opposition at home. He has also acted on civil liberties in the deeply Catholic country, decriminalizing abortion, simplifying divorce procedures and legalizing gay marriage.

He won reelection in 2009, but the crisis took its toll and the Socialists lost their full majority in parliament, making it increasingly difficult to pass any reforms.

The Greek debt crisis quickly spread to Portugal in 2010, exposing its weak public finances and high debt load.

Socrates tried to patch up failing investor confidence in Portugal’s public finances and had to break electoral promises and implement austerity measures such as tax hikes and spending cuts via a short-lived pact with the Social Democrats.

Born into a middle-class family in 1957, Socrates, who is divorced and has two sons, has represented Castelo Branco, a mountain town 180 km (110 miles) from Lisbon, in parliament since 1987.