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Leader of winning party in Portugal vote is economic liberal

Published on 06/06/2011

Pedro Passos Coelho, leader of Portugal's centre-right opposition Social Democrats which won an early general election on Sunday, is an economic liberal who lacks previous government experience even though he entered politics as a teenager.

Tall and thin, the 46-year-old who should be nominated prime minister after his party’s election victory exuded tranquility on the campaign trail of his first major political battle.

His manner contrasted to the ardour and outbursts of his adversary in Sunday’s general election, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates.

Born on July 24, 1964, in Coimbra, Portugal’s third largest city, he spent his childhood in Angola, at the time still a Portuguese colony, where his father was a doctor.

After the west African country gained its independence from Lisbon in 1975, Passos Coelho’s family returned to Portugal and set up a home in the northern city of Vila Real.

Following in the footsteps of his father, who was leader of the local branch of the Social Democrats (PSD), Passos Coelho joined the youth wing of the party when he was just 13.

Seven years later he became its secretary general and then its president in 1990.

Elected a member of parliament for the first time in 1991, his liberal positions on the issues of drugs and military service annoyed party veterans who dislike his independence.

In 1999, at the age of 35, he decided to quit parliament to “get on with his life”. Two years later, with a degree in economics in his pocket, he became a consultant and then financial director of an investment group.

The break from politics was short-lived.

In 2005 Passos Coelho returned to the political scene when he was elected vice president of the PSD.

Defeated in internal elections for the party leadership in 2008, he was kept away from the campaign for general election held in September 2009 in which Socrates was re-elected despite the growing unpopularity of his government.

Six months later Passos Coelho was elected president of the PSD through a direct vote by party members.

Under his leadership, the party adopts a much more economically liberal programme than it has in the past, calling for a reduction in the role of the state in the economy — and a smaller social role.

His proposal that people who collect unemployment benefits should be required to do community work has caused controversy. So too has his questioning of the constitutional guarantee of free access to education and health care.

Portugal’s debt crisis put him to the test and during several months Passos Coelho struggle to clarify his position.

He alternated between his “determined opposition” to Socrates’ Socialist government and his “patriotic” support for austerity measures put in place to rein in a huge public deficit.

At the end of March, as market pressure on Portugal mounted, he provoked the resignation of the minority government by refusing to back its fourth austerity programme in less than a year.

Shortly after Socrates resigned, Portugal was forced to ask for a 78-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The Socialists accused him of “opening the door to the IMF”, to which he responded “it is better to ask for help than to die of hunger”.

Subsequently, he not only respected the conditions negotiated by the government with the IMF and the EU, but went beyond what was agreed in the areas of privatisations and economic reforms.

Passos Coelho has been married two times and has three daughters. A baritone, he likes to sing fado, the melancholy music of Portugal, when he meets with friends at Lisbon restaurants.