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Watching The World

Published: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday March 1, 2015 MYT 8:09:26 AM

No way Jose

IN late 2007 when I was offered the chance to visit Lisbon, I fairly leapt at it. Granted the reason I went wasn’t the most enthralling. In fact it was a global conference on erectile dysfunction and I distinctly recall feeling more than a little traumatised listening to specialist testimony with all sorts of horror predictions for my then impending middle age.

Nonetheless, I had my reasons for wanting to visit Portugal, which is a real treasure trove for a history buff. I walked around Lisbon drinking it all in.

A fascinating place with parts of the city dating back to Roman times, and echoes of the Middle Ages, the devastating earthquake of 1755 and the long Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar (prime minister from 1932 to 1968) all reflected in its architecture.

This was a country that also gave the world its largest number of great naval explorers in Vasco De Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Bartholomeu Dias and others, but had long been in relative decline.

Which is why I wanted to see for myself the effects of the premiership of Jose Socrates.

In 2007 he was riding high, his Socialist Party holding an absolute majority in parliament and the economy buoyed by rapid growth. No longer was Portugal a poor cousin of Europe.

Socrates, with his earnest image and boyish looks, was the head of a new generation of Portuguese leaders who became politically active in the years following Portugal’s left-wing Carnation Revolution of 1974.

Raised by a single father, he had worked his way up through the ranks, serving in junior ministries such as that of Youth and Sports and Environment in the government of Antonio Guterres, before rising to the top post in 2005 at the young age of 48.

Imagine my horror then when he was arrested late last year, in late November 2014, at Lisbon airport in connection with tax evasion, money laundering and corruption charges.

The charges have been deemed sufficiently severe that Socrates is still detained in prison.

It is a low point I could barely have believed possible just a few years ago.

Yes, it slowly unravelled soon after my visit.

In 2008, Socrates’ administration was affected by an economic downturn, and he was forced to impose vastly unpopular austerity measures that hit his own supporters hardest. Bit by bit, personal scandals and faux pas wore away Socrates’ popularity.

It seemed like anything that could go wrong went wrong.

There were questions over Socrates’ educational background and it was revealed that he had not actually completed a degree in engineering as was widely believed. His track record in construction projects came under scrutiny.

There were allegations that family members had misused Socrates’ position in what became known as the Freeport controversy.

But Socrates tried to cling on, scraping through the 2009 elections with a reduced majority before crippling debt and skyrocketing unemployment led to a damning defeat to conservative rivals in April 2011.

By the time Socrates left office, the booming nation that I had visited in 2007 was staring bankruptcy in the face.

Ironically, his former colleagues in the Socialist Party have rebounded and they are leading in opinion polls for elections due to be held in mid-October this year.

Unlike Greece and Spain, Portuguese voters seem to be sticking with traditional parties and the part-Goan Mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Silva, is favoured to become the new leader after handily winning his party’s primaries.

Jose Socrates, however, is now facing a nightmare. Questions over his lavish post-PM life in Paris have led to the detention of Socrates, his driver Joao Perna and a number of close associates.

The list of alleged violations stunned the nation, and have most probably fatally tarnished the man’s legacy.

The way things are going, the man who was the hope of the future is fighting a losing battle for his personal freedom, while Portugal presses on.

> Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan recalls the scent of Port and cinnamon as he writes. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Opinion, Columnists, World, Portugal, Jose Socrates

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