Saturday, December 04, 2004

Troubles in his back yard

While Barroso struggles to deal with his new job as commission president, having already weathered the unprecedented crisis of having his original line-up rejected by the EU parliament, trouble is breaking out back home.

Having been plucked from his job as a moderately successful (in the opinion of some commentators) prime minister of Portugal, last July he handed the country over to Santana Lopes, his deputy in the Social Democratic Party (PSD).

Lopes, however, has made such a mess of things that he is being slated as "the most incompetent prime minister to govern Portugal in 30 years of democracy". The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that, last Tuesday, president Jorge Sampaio decided to withdraw his confidence in the man, leaving the country adrift and in political turmoil.

Sampaio now has to meet with his Council of State, after which parliament will be dissolved within 10 or 15 days, and early elections will be called, to be held within 55 to 60 days.

But the man who is being placed firmly in the frame for the chaos is one José Manuel Durao Barroso who, before scuttling off to Brussels to take up his new job, gave his "personal and political guarantees" that the Portuguese government would be in excellent hands.

According to Costância da Cunha e Sá, a former director of the conservative weekly O Independente and one of Portugal's most highly-respected analysts, "that did not come to pass, and it is a disgrace that the president of the Commission refuses to assume his responsibility for what he left behind him."

That view, it seems, is widely shared by Portugal's most prominent analysts, who have been making an enormous effort on the country's main TV and radio stations to explain how so many problems, conflicts and public gaffes could have occurred in just four months.

The trigger for Sampaio's action was the resignation of minister of youth and sports, Henrique Chaves, just four days after he assumed the post having until then held the influential position of "ministerial assistant to the prime minister". His appointment to the youth and sports portfolio was seen as a humiliating demotion. On resigning, Chaves accused Lopes of "lack of loyalty" and of "failing to tell the truth" on a number of occasions.

This was the latest of a series of conflicts within the PSD and the coalition government, not least of these has Lopes contradicting his own finance minister. He had been fighting off pressure to reduce taxes, claiming that the economic situation made reductions impossible, only to have the prime minister declare, in a "fiery speech" that the economic crisis was over and tax cuts were "imminent".

Meanwhile, there has been open warfare between other senior minister, spilling onto the front pages of the country's major newspapers, followed by other members of the cabinet publicly disowning their own government, reaching a climax when the minister tried to pressurise the state-run into covering up the discord.

This led the deputy editor of the influential newspaper Diario Económico to recalled that Barroso had named Lopes as his successor in the name of stability when, in fact, his appointment has led to tremendous instability, a factor "that has marked his entire turbulent political performance."

He described the 135 days of Santana Lopes' leadership as "a succession of ridiculous situations straight out of a comedy," giving rise to the danger that Portugal would cease to be seen as a "serious country" by the rest of the world". Instead, it would be considered a "circus", Guerra added.

Back in Brussels, Barroso's attention is elsewhere, warning in an newspaper interview published today that the enlarged EU faced the risk of breaking up under pressure from populist parties on the left and right. "The challenge which confronts Europe today is not the risk of a federal super-state and the erosion of our national traditions but the possibility of disintegration," the claimed.

Perhaps it might be a better idea, for his own reputation and of his own country, if he took a closer look at the troubles in his own back yard.

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