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Portugal’s Antonio Costa, shrewd dealmaker poised for re-election

A man rides a motorbike next to an Iniciativa Liberal party electoral campaign billboard depicting a caricatured Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa in Lisbon on Oct 1, 2019, ahead of Oct 6 general election.

Lisbon, Portugal | AFP |  Portugal’s Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa, tipped to win a second term in an election on Sunday, is a shrewd tactician who balanced the budget without losing the support of hard-left parties that propped up his minority government.

The white-haired former mayor of Lisbon, of Indian descent, enjoys a comfortable poll lead, bucking the trend of declining centre-left fortunes elsewhere in Europe.

Born on July 17, 1961 in Lisbon, Costa was raised in the intellectual circles frequented by his parents, Orlando da Costa, a communist writer who descends from a family from Goa, Portugal’s old colony in India, and Maria Antonia Palla, a journalist and women’s rights advocate.

His younger half-brother Ricardo Costa is the director of Portugal’s influential weekly newspaper Expresso.

Nicknamed “babush”, a term of endearment to address a little boy in Konkani, a dialect in Goa, Antonio Costa joined the youth wing of the Socialist party in 1975 at age 14, just one year after a coup toppled a decades-long right-wing military dictatorship.

“Antonio Costa is a skilled negotiator. He is very pragmatic and a born politician who has been a Socialist activist since he was a teenager,” said University of Lisbon political scientist Marina Costa Lobo.

After earning a law and political sciences degree, Costa was named secretary of state for parliamentary affairs in 1995, aged just 34 — a key role in the Socialist minority government of Antonio Guterres, the current UN Secretary General. Costa was promoted to justice minister four years later.

Following a brief stint as a member of the European Parliament, he was appointed interior minister in 2005 in the government of Jose Socrates.

– ‘Odd contraption’ –

He quit two years later to make a successful run for mayor of Lisbon. He was re-elected to the post in 2009 and 2013.

The move to municipal politics allowed Costa to distance himself from Socrates, who stepped down as prime minister in 2011 after negotiating Portugal’s international bailout. Socrates was arrested in 2014, accused of corruption and tax evasion.

Costa came to power in 2015 following an inconclusive election.

His Socialists had finished second behind a centre-right coalition that had overseen a harsh EU-imposed austerity programme. Under the plan, a three-year 78 billion euro ($85 billion) bailout kept finances afloat during the eurozone debt crisis.

The post-election deal was seen as a demonstration of the former lawyer’s negotiating skills.

In a surprise move, he convinced two smaller hard-left parties to support a minority Socialist government that foes nicknamed the “geringonca”, or odd contraption.

Many analysts predicted the government would last six months at most but it completed its four-year mandate.

Some polls suggest the Socialists are within striking distance of an absolute majority in parliament on Sunday that would allow it to govern on its own.

– ‘Slightly annoying optimism’ –

Riding the tide of a global economic recovery and a tourism boom, Costa was able to undo some of the austerity measures imposed by his predecessors even as his government slashed the budget deficit to nearly zero — well within the limits imposed by European budget rules.

Costa “had the clear-sightedness to see that he could ally himself with the (hard) left without making too many compromises,” said political scientist Antonio Costa Pinto.

Though the prime minister is known among supporters for his constant smile and common touch, his detractors call him “manipulative” and “Machiavellian”.

Portugal’s conservative President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who was Costa’s professor in law school in Lisbon, once called out the prime minister for his “chronic and slightly annoying optimism”.

The Socialist leader has repeatedly ruled out forming a coalition government with the hard left if his party wins Sunday’s election but falls shy of a parliamentary majority.

“It’s best not to ruin a good friendship with a bad marriage,” he says when asked about this possibility.

A supporter of Lisbon-based Benfica, Portugal’s most successful football team, the married father of two likes to relax by doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles and watching movies.

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