The demise of Cavaco Silva: one of Europe's longest serving politicians faces a bitter goodbye

Rui OChôa

Cavaco Silva is a political phenomenon of the kind we often witness in countries with a less robust democratic track-record. He is Portugal's longest serving politician: four four-year stints as prime-minister and then the Presidency: twice. There was a time when he was described as a "saviour", no trace of exaggeration nor of sarcasm in sight. He came to power in 1985 and was instrumental in the process that got Portugal accepted in the EEC (EU's embryo). After 40 years of isolation under António Salazar's right-wing dictatorship, Portugal was shaken back to the world stage by the huge sums of money pouring in from Europe but what people saw was not the money: they saw the roads, hospitals, schools and shopping malls: all of it built under the steady hand of Cavaco Silva. But a lot can happen in three decades and Silva has left the presidency scoring dramatically low in popularity: a staggering minus 12, less than he himself or any other president before him has ever scored.

Luísa Meireles

Luísa Meireles

Redatora Principal

Ana França

Ana França


A new record. Minus 12 in the popularity scale. What did Cavaco Silva do? What didn't he do? What should he have done differently? "Portugal needs more than institutional cooperation because our country faces serious problems and the President can't expect to simply make sure that the normal order of things is maintained, he needs to seek alliances, cooperation, change". Cavaco Silva dixit, in the far gone era of 2006, before austerity hit, when he was first elected as President of the Republic with a 51% majority, 30% more than the candidate who placed second. Back then he was a centre-right President of a country sporting a socialist majority Parliament.

He didn't have it easy at the helm. The 2011 financial bail-out and the severe austerity measures imposed by the international monetary authorities on an already frail economy didn't make it easier to find words that could assuage his citizens new-found hardship. In the beginning of his tenure he was stability impersonated. He conjured an aura of respect that wrapped around him like a comfortable armour. Now, pretty much everyone despises him: on the left, his natural opposition, that can be understood, but the animosity spreads within his political family, the Social Democratic Party (PSD).

If there was a doubt left we needed only pay attention to the recent presidential campaign: every single candidate (there were ten of them) made a point of setting themselves apart from his legacy, that includes Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who has taken the seat from Silva, and is affiliated with the same party. "We need a President who is comfortable demonstrating affection", said Rebelo de Sousa. "He [Silva] just wasn't present in the lives of the our citizens", said Maria de Belém, a candidate running with the support of (a part of) the Socialist Party (PS). Harsh words but a great deal less scathing than those fired by Marisa Matias, who placed third with the support of the left-leaning party Left Bloc: "Cavaco was a president who occupied himself with inaugurations in the intervals of his subservience to the ruling party, his own", she said during the campaign. Edgar Silva, running with the support of the Communist Party, was harsh too: "He is as influential as the Queen of England" and "collusive with the financial institutions which have ruined our country".

Somewhere along the line Cavaco Silva lost the charisma which carried him to unrivalled parliamentary stardom, and then to the highest office in the nation, the presidency. Because he had been prime-minister during the years when money was being injected in every sector of the economy by the nice folk in Europe, he held a certain air of messiah. But reality changed swiftly. Worst than losing his charisma was, perhaps, the fact that he eventually lost the respect of the Portuguese people who couldn't no longer believe, understand or even relate to his progressively awkward speeches, grey, devoid of any real meaning, which served only to align him with the rest of the political class, from which the country feels terribly disenfranchised.

Cavaco Silva, in 1985, when he was in campaign for prime-minister. We would lead government the following ten years

Cavaco Silva, in 1985, when he was in campaign for prime-minister. We would lead government the following ten years


He leaves office an isolated man "locked within the confinement of a self-built labyrinth", one of his closest allies says, asking to remain anonymous. And perhaps he is living through his worst nightmare: to have recently instated a left-wing government after having done all he could to prevent it. He even tried to unite the two biggest parties in a kind of central bloc but failed at that too. His harmonising powers were but a shadow of past times. In his own political backyard there were those, speaking under the condition of anonymity too, who said that he should have predicted the skewed political scenario that followed the general elections: PSD won the elections but the small left-leaning parties combined amassed more votes overall and it was then up to them, and not PSD, the winner, to find enough common ground to present the President with an united alternative capable of delivering the only thing that the Constitution requires: stability. And so they did. Against most odds. They set aside their differences and now Portugal is ruled by a coalition of "lefts".

A Casting Mistake?
"He is a presidential casting mistake", said Ângelo Correia, the social-democrat who helped ex-prime-minister Pedro Passos Coelho become leader of PSD before running for prime-minister. "He should have ended his political career when he left the parliament as prime-minister, where he did some good to the country", says Correia. At the presidency "he became a bureaucrat aspiring only to a consensual and de-politicised democracy", wrote Alfredo Barroso, ex-chief of staff of Mário Soares, President of the Republic from 1986 to 1996. "He is herbivorous, not carnivorous, he eats only grass, never meat", said, once again, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, then just a political commentator, now the new President.

Was Cavaco Silva then an institutionalist who couldn't - or wouldn't - see past the book of rules ending up untangled in a knot of self-censure, unable to reach beyond his official duties or did he not do enough to defend the country's democratic institutions after all? "Unlike what people seem to think, Cavaco Silva did not defend democracy and its institutions enough, siding more often with the markets and the creditors then with the struggle of his owns citizens", said André Freire, a political analyst.

At a personal level those who knew him use widely antagonistic adjectives to describe him: "shy", "insecure", "arid", "fragile", "resentful", "self-suficient", "strict", "addicted to scripts", "hyper-rationalist" but also "funny", with " a finely-tuned sense of humour", "restless worker", "well prepared", "exhaustive", "energetic", "sensible".

Cavaco Silva and prime-minister Antonio Costa, early 2016

Cavaco Silva and prime-minister Antonio Costa, early 2016

Marcos Borga/Lusa

Silva's retirement plan
However discernible many of these traits may have been to the public, they are not determinant in how that same public - and History - will judge Cavaco Silva. "He is convinced he did what he should have done", one of his allies says. "He doesn't care about the effects his convictions may have had in his below-zero popularity".

But as weathered politician, Cavaco Silva is not oblivious to the fact that the popularity of a President must be somewhat attuned to his authority: his legitimacy to intervene and mediate in the political arena grows in proportion to his credit with the electorate. In truth, there is a specific moment, a definitive "before and after" that marks the beginning of his demise: the 20th of January 2012. In trying to demonstrate his solidarity with the dwindling retirement earnings of Portugal's pensionists, particularly affected by the cuts imposed by the financial bail-out, the President said something that would taint the rest of his tenure. Leaving out of his speech the amount he was earning for his time as an economist at the Bank of Portugal he said that "all summed up" he probably wouldn't be able to "make ends meet" with the pension he would receive. The problem is that from his time as prime-minister he was earning £900 per month plus the £7300 from the Bank of Portugal. In a country where 80% of pensioners earn a little over £260 per month, this was the equivalent of a political suicide - on live TV. Two days after, in the northern town of Guimarães, he was whistled away by the locals as a form of protest. His popularity dropped more than 20% overnight until it fell to below zero. "It was then and there: ties were severed, respect was lost", says Marques Mendes, one of PSD's ex leaders.

History starts in the beginning
Cavaco Silva's mandate was atypical from the start. If it's fair to assume that you can't expect the left to be kind to a President from the opposite political side of the barricade it wasn't expected that the right would also give him the cold shoulder. In his second mandate, the one which is mostly to blame for this enduring negative impression of the President, he faced more crisis then any other president before him. In 2011, when the government fell, the IMF took over the country's finances, a burden which Silva, and old-school economist, saw as a necessity. He took it upon himself to defend and uphold the so-called troika memorandum effectively removing himself from showing even the remotest shade of rebellion towards the markets which estranged Portuguese family's finances. Perhaps he wouldn't have achieved much had he expressed his opposition, after all the Parliament had called for help, but people were left wondering whether he was actually welcoming this struggle. If he knew this would be the story of his second mandate he wouldn't have ran - not even for the first, he is said to have confessed to a close ally.

It was the hot summer of 2009. The expression "hot summer" goes back to the political tumult which followed the democratic Revolution of 1974. This was, in many ways, no different. Every month there was a new scandal: all of them reaching all the way up the political chain. One of the most damaging ones was what became known as the "bugs case". The daily newspaper "Publico" published a story where it accused two of Silva's closest advisers of helping his own party, the PSD, drafting a new election manifesto. The paper said the information had been provided by socialist MPs. The obvious question: how does the opposition know what goes on inside the President's house? The chilling headline: President suspects he is being spied on by the government". The shaky relationship between the president and the Parliament worsens. It is open war. A week before the election, another paper, "Diário de Notícias", revels internal emails between "Publico" and Cavaco Silva's long serving press officer, Fernando Lima. After the elections, Cavaco Silva gives a speech but there's no mention of the alleged "bugs", instead he accuses the government of "manipulation" and says that "all limits of decency have been breached".

The relationship between the two most important institutions of the Republic was at its most strained. Back then one MP told Expresso that "in a healthy democracy both Parliament and Presidency would have agreed to be dissolved immediately". Weeks later Silva would ask José Sócrates to form a government as he had won the elections again leaving the President with no other options. As Greece and Ireland accepted the intervention of the European monetary authorities, Silva warns that his country is also walking arms stretches into a deep economic and financial abyss. It was.

New President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Cavaco Silva, who steps downs

New President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa and Cavaco Silva, who steps downs

Marcos Borga

Since the bug story broke out, trust was irredeemably broken and Cavaco Silva was personally attacked from then on. His character was called into question chiefly because of a number of shares he sold shortly - quite shortly - before the collapse of BPN, a bank ran into bankruptcy by a corrupt director.

His image of unpolluted leader was tarnished. In a televised debate his nervousness gets the best of him: "many of the people who accuse me of being involved in dubious investments, would have to be born again to be as honest as I am". His most cherished asset had been called into question. On the 24th of January 2011 he is reconducted to the presidency winning a majority of 53% of the vote but the number of people casting a ballot decreased by around a million and there three time as many blank votes. A new Cavaco Silva is born: he is bitterer and wary. There was the smell of things to come. At his indictment he openly criticised the government in a way he hadn't been heard doing so before, not even to his closest advisers. He mentions that the efforts demanded of the Portuguese people had reached its "limits" and he asks for a "civic upheaval". He was saying goodbye to the socialist government.

A few weeks after, the opposition presented a united front against the so-called PEC (Stability and Growth Programme) which was the document that enshrined all the austerity measures that Europe demanded Portugal implemented before they released monetary help. It didn't pass and the socialist prime-minister presented his resignation. He became yet another President who used his most feared weapon, the dissolution of Parliament, allowing for new elections which predictably elected the social-democrats. But PSD had approved, along with the socialists of yesterday, the bail-out so austerity did arrive nonetheless. At the beginning, Cavaco was opposed to the the measures being implemented but in the end send the Budget to be scrutinised by the Constitutional Tribunal (an institution which oversees all laws that emanate from the Parliament to make sure they don't conflict with the Constitution. Cavaco then tries to bring the socialist opposition on board with the measures, to make sure stability remains as the "Olympic minimum" required to navigate through the waters of austerity. But the PSD had entered into coalition with the right-wing CDS and held a comfortable majority.

They didn't need to listen to the opposition so they didn't. The huge protests of 2012 made international headlines and they stand as the biggest proof yet of how far removed from the people's struggle the political class really was, specially in the beginning of the bail-out process, before statistics were available that could shed some light on much people had really lost with the contention plan. Three months after the vice prime-minister, the leader of CDS, Paulo Portas, presents his resignation. He ended up staying but the President tries one more time to unite the whole political spectrum under the necessity of balancing the public finances. But after all this effort he leaves to the Madeira archipelago, a careless decision that many blame for the failure of this much needed agreement. "He didn't take the risk himself, he prevented instead if acting, as was his habit, like he just wanted to make clear what his thoughts were, for posthumous evaluation", a source said.

"In theory the idea was good but Cavaco didn't have the political credit to impose anything anymore, following that episode with the amount he was going to receive in his retirement", the same source says.

Pedro Passos Coelho, the prime-minister after José Sócrates, and heir to the bulk of the austerity measures, was still not interested and Cavaco aSilva felt silent since then. "He finally resorted to his comfort area, visited the most remote parts of the country, and dedicated himself to distributing medals", says a friend. But the real eye-opener is to hear from a man who is undoubtedly from Cavaco Silva's political family say the same thing that one from the opposite side of the spectrum: "he didn't have it in him to accommodate difference so he restored to inflexibility and in doing so became estranged from the country he always wanted to serve own".