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Portugal poll may mark end of 'ferocious' reformer

 Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates arrives for a rally, Sunday, Sept. 20 2009 in Porto, Portugal. Portugal holds parl...
 Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates, right, and former Portuguese President and Prime Minister Mario Soares attend a r...
 Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates, center, and former Portuguese President and Prime Minister Mario Soares, right, a...

Portugal Elections

Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates arrives for a rally, Sunday, Sept. 20 2009 in Porto, Portugal. Portugal holds parl...

Portugal Elections

Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates, right, and former Portuguese President and Prime Minister Mario Soares attend a r...

Portugal Elections

Portuguese Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates, center, and former Portuguese President and Prime Minister Mario Soares, right, a...

Just before he came to power in a landslide four years ago, Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates described himself in political terms as "a ferocious animal" _ an uncompromising reformer who would turn Portugal into one of Europe's go-getters.
The Socialist Party leader is tamer and far less popular ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections.
Chastened by anti-reform protests that on one occasion forced him to duck out the back door of a school, stung by his party's drubbing in European Parliament elections three months ago, and sobered by an economic crisis, Socrates' fortunes illustrate some of the difficulties in bringing new ideas to the Old Continent.
The center-left Socialists are in one of the closest election contests ever with the center-right Social Democrats as polls indicate each set to capture around 30-35 percent of the vote, with the rest shared between three smaller parties. The two leading parties have dominated Parliament for more than 20 years.
"There's a huge amount of uncertainty" about what's going to happen, says Marina Costa Lobo, a political researcher at Lisbon University's Social Sciences Institute.
Voters who warmed to Socrates' promise of change in 2005, when he collected 45 percent of the vote, turned frosty as his reforms took away long-standing entitlements.
The government has slashed public sector benefits such as special health care provisions. It has also hiked the civil service retirement age to 65 from 60 and introduced an evaluation system for teachers. That brought howls from trade unions.
The government says its strategy to thin the bloated public sector by admitting only one new employee for every two who leave has been a success, cutting total staff to 696,000 from more than 747,000 in four years.
By implementing reforms usually associated with center-right governments, the Socialists have stolen much of the Social Democratic Party's political thunder. At the same time they have sacrificed some of their own support.
Maria Augusto, a 48-year-old Lisbon civil servant, said she has voted Socialist all her life but now intends to switch to one of the right-of-center parties because promised reforms had missed their target.
Socrates "turned out to be a failure," she said, rattling off a list of gripes including weak health care provision, poor treatment of civil servants and a lack of jobs.
The Left Bloc, a more radical group which wants higher corporate taxes to pay for social services, is forecast to harvest disgruntled Socialist Party supporters, roughly doubling its number of parliamentary seats. That leaves the door open to a possible coalition government with the Socialist Party if the result is close.
June's European elections brought a sharp rebuke for Socrates. His Socialist Party posted its worst showing in 20 years, polling 26.6 percent compared with 31.7 percent for the Social Democrats.
Mellowing his hectoring style on the campaign trail, Socrates acknowledged that the past four years had been "very hard, with very unpalatable reforms undertaken for the good of the country." However, he has vowed to continue with what he terms Portugal's modernization.
The Social Democrats also insist recent reforms have been a "sham" _ cosmetic changes that fall short of the sweeping makeover Portugal needs.
Perhaps his biggest handicap, however, is that the reforms have delivered pain without obvious gain because of the global economic crisis. Portugal's economy contracted 3.7 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year.
Socrates had promised to create 150,000 new jobs. Instead, the jobless rate has jumped from 7.9 percent to 9.1 percent under his stewardship, and some 500,000 people are out of work.
Fabian Zuleeg, a senior analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based think-tank, notes that reforms are better received when economic times are good. He points to progress made in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.
"It's not necessarily the case for politicians that if you push through reforms you shoot yourself in the foot," Zuleeg said in a telephone interview. "It is much easier to carry through reforms on the back of a growing, strong economy."


Updated : 2021-10-22 16:50 GMT+08:00