Monday, October 5, 2015

Weary electorate get weak government

As anticipated, there was no outright winner in this election. The centre-right coalition led by Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho won the most votes, about 38%, but it lost its majority in parliament and has little prospect of serving a full term.
The centre-left polled just over 32% of the votes, less than expected, which left António Costa with another fight on his hands: to carry on as leader of the opposition Socialist Party amid calls for his resignation.
The anti-austerity Left Bloc (BE) achieved their best result ever with more than 10% of the votes. The Communist Party dipped into fourth position with just over 8%.
The turnout was a record low: 43% of eligible voters stayed away, probably because they don’t like any of the political parties or felt their vote would not make much difference to the way the country is being run.
An outright majority in the 230-seat parliament would have required 44% of the vote. As it was, the coalition have so far come away with just 104 seats - 12 short.
Four seats are still undecided as final results of voters living abroad are awaited. While emigrants have the right to vote, most don’t bother. In 2011, non-voters abroad totalled 83%.
The half a million Portuguese who have left the country since 2011 are expected to add to the overall abstention rate.
"If we stay on the path we’ve been following, we won’t need any more bailouts,"  was one of Passos Coelho’s campaign messages.
Although his victory was a hollow one, at least he has the distinction of being the first prime minister to be re-elected among the five eurozone states that received a bank bailout.
The 2011-2015 coalition government’s austerity programme was hugely unpopular, but it appears to have worked, at least to the liking of Brussels. The coalition’s electioneering strong point was that having exited its bailout program successfully in 2014, Portugal’s economy looks like it is back on its feet, showing some of the best growth rates in the eurozone.
Tough times lie ahead but the economy is expected to grow 1.6 percent in 2015 and 1.8 percent next year, according to the latest forecasts from the European Commission.
The Socialists failed to capitalise on their promise to moderate the government’s austerity measures. António Costa said they would boost households’ disposable income while going along with fiscal discipline and supporting the EU policies so adamantly opposed by the far-left.
So, in essence, the 57% of voters who bothered to turn out have just generated a weaker version of the unpopular government they had before. By a slim margin, voters have decided it's better to stick with the devil they know.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Portugal election: complications ahead

It’s shaping up to be the closest contest in Portugal’s post-revolution democracy, but such is the level of apathy, angst and anger over politics that a record number of eligible voters may not bother to cast their ballot on Sunday. Those who do vote may end up concocting a parliamentary configuration that will make governing this country much more complicated than it has been for years.
Enthusiasm for voting has been in decline since 1974. People exercise political power through periodic legislative elections in which all citizens over the age of eighteen have the right to vote under conditions of equality and freedom. Sounds good, but the abstention levels have increased dramatically.
Democracy of a limited kind first arrived in Portugal on 5 October 1910 with the overthrow of the constitutional monarchy and the establishment of the First Republic. Dubbed by some as the ‘Nightmare Republic,’ it lasted for just 16 years during which time the voting system prior to universal suffrage put into power no fewer than 45 governments.
Rampant economic ineptness and political corruption between 1910 and 1926 created turmoil and ushered in almost half a century of dictatorship. Since the revolution of 1974 there have been a relatively modest 14 freely elected governments.
The turnout of voters in 1974 was a whopping 91.7%. It has dropped almost ever general election since then. In 1983 it had plummeted to well below 80% and in 1991 to well below 70% . In the last two general elections – 2009 and 2011 – the abstention rate was in excess of 40%.
Public disenchantment and distrust of politicians in the era of harsh austerity is widespread and deep in Portugal and so another low turnout seems inevitable.
To add to the turnout concerns, top football teams will set a precedent by playing premier league matches on Sunday.
Portugal’s election commission (CNE) could do no more than express “concern” over the likely number of lost votes because of matches involving Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting. Although the CNE always asks that big games not be held on election days, no legal ban can be imposed.
The results of the football games are easier to predict than the outcome of the 2015 election. If the pollsters are to be believed, the centre-right PSD-CDS coalition and the centre-left Socialist party could each win about 100 seats in the 230-seat parliament, leaving both sides well short of a majority.
The conservative coalition have been running the show for the past four years, the first freely elected coalition government in Portugal to survive a full term in office. The centre-left are hoping to re-establish the ruling status they enjoyed between 2009 and 2011, but they have been slipping somewhat in the most recent opinion polls.
Daily tracking by pollsters show the Communists to be steady on 10% and the Left Wing Bloc on 5%, meaning that despite the deeply unpopular austerity measures imposed by the coalition alliance there is no great appetite in Portugal for radical protest parties like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain.
With no outright winner in prospect, one possible outcome is a weak minority government that will struggle to survive. Instability that could force another election within a year or two. Such a scenario, say analysts, could undermine Portugal's reform efforts and delay its recovery from the debt crisis.
Although none of the parties are advocating it, an alternative to a minority government would be a grand coalition. It has happened before. The Socialists ruled in coalition with the PSD and the Christian Democrats in the 1980s.
Never have the Socialists shared power with the Communists and doing so now is hard to imagine. For one thing, although the Socialists have promised to ease some austerity measures, unlike the far left they share the incumbent coalition’s intention to abide by the fiscal discipline required by being a member of the 19-nation eurozone.
So it’s all up in the air; speaking of which, if you are looking for an omen, good or bad, the forecast for most of Portugal for the rest of the week is sunshine. On Sunday and Monday rain is expected. Of course, weather forecasts can turn out to be wrong. And so can polls.

Conservative leader Pedro Passos Coelho

Socialist leader António Costa

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Election hots up, candidate reveals all

Gone is the perception that all politicians are shady. Well, at least one isn’t. With just over three weeks to go before Portugal’s general election, the left-wing Lisbon candidate Joana Amaral Dias has emphasised her belief in transparency.
But why would she choose to appear on the cover of a glossy magazine in the nude?
Why not?” was her succinct reply.
Stripped naked but with her dignity deftly intact, the photo shows that Joana is expecting another child and that her eyes are firmly fixed on the large number of still undecided voters.
The 40-year-old was making something of a statement about systematic corruption and the opaque power of the elite. She advocates “a clear and faithful relationship with voters.”
Far from being just another pin-up gal, Joana is the daughter of a psychiatrist and with a Ph.D degree of her own she practices, teaches and conducts research as a clinical psychologist. She is a prolific author of scholarly as well as newspaper articles, and has published a biographical and psychological treatise on historical figures in Portugal.
As an independent politician and the mother of a young son, she served as a member of parliament between 2002 and 2005. Her latest pregnancy may limit her activities on the campaign trail, but these days there are alternatives to rushing from soap box to soap box.
When the now famous photo of Joana in the arms of her boyfriend was reproduced on her Facebook page, it attracted thousands of ‘likes’ and elicited praise for her courage and candour.
Such an unprecedented initiative is unlikely to be replicated by Finance Minister Maria Luís Albuquerque whom Joana accuses along with Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho of lying through “as many teeth as they have in their mouths” over the bank scandals.
The grey-suited brigades from the centrist Social Democrats and Socialists are fronting up to each other with no sign among the electorate of any clear party preference. Apathy is such that a large number of people are undecided which way to vote - or whether to vote at all.
Joana’s bold stance has chivvied things up in Portugal but it might not work in other countries. Germans would undoubtedly prefer Angela Merkel to remain fully clothed. In Britain, the only last-minute hope of preventing Jeremy Corbyn from securing the Labour Party leadership may have been for Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall to disrobe, though this might have sparked a mass defection to the Tories.
If Hillary Clinton were to pose in the altogether it might arouse memories of her husband’s non-political activities in the White House. 
For now, Joana Amaral Dias’s impressive credentials remain unrivalled, but the bare fact is that we shall have to wait until 4 October before we know if she will need to take maternity leave from parliament.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fátima peace mission to Syria delayed

A Christian plan to promote peace by taking a statue of Our Lady of Fátima from Portugal to Syria has been postponed because of the dire state of affairs in Damascus, but it has not been cancelled altogether.
The largely sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims over the past four years has killed 200,000 and displaced 11 million Syrians, including many Christians caught up in the conflict.
A symbolic gesture amid the unfolding human catastrophe in Syria, the plan to take a replica pilgrim statue to Damascus from the world-renowned Fátima Shrine in central Portugal was announced in the middle of last month.
The statue was to have arrived on Monday, 7th September. On that date two years ago, Pope Francis held a day of fasting and prayer in St Peter’s Square, Rome, during which he said: “Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation – these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world.”
The Fátima visit had been requested by the Syrian Melkite and Greek-Catholic leader, His Beatitude Patriarch Gregorios III. Having agreed to the request, the Shrine then received a communication from the patriarch on 27th August asking for the visit to be postponed because conditions in Damascus were “aggravated.”
The patriarch did not consider it “opportune or convenient” and asked that the visit be delayed “to a later and more favourable date.” No new date has been set, but a Shrine spokesperson affirmed that “the visit will happen.”
The idea of the pilgrimage is “to implore the maternal intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary for peace and for the well-being of Christian communities who have been suffering intensely from the horrors of war.”
The Christian community in Syria is one of the world’s oldest. The apostle Paul is said to have been converted on the road to Damascus. Some Christians in the ancient town of Maaloula, about 50 kilometres northeast of Damascus, can still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Prior to the unrest that accompanied the Arab Spring, the ethnically mixed Christian community of 1.8 million, or 10% of Syria’s population, enjoyed peace and religious freedom under the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The worsening civil war and persecution by Islamic fundamentalists have made life intolerable and forced what Patriarch Gregorios III has described as a “tsunami” of Christians to flee.
The Catholic Herald reports that the patriarch has issued an impassioned plea to young people, begging them to stay. In an open letter, a copy of which was sent to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, he said: “The almost communal wave of youth emigration, especially in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iraq, breaks my heart, wounding me deeply and dealing me a deadly blow.”
The patriarch added: “Given this tsunami of emigration… what future is left for the Church? What will become of our homeland? What will become of our parishes and institutions?”
Prior to the pilgrimage postponement, the Bishop of Leira-Fátima, António Augosto do Santos Marto, said he wished “to respond to the appeals of the bishops in the Middle East, witnesses to the extermination of Christians in the face of the indifference of the international community.”
The rector of the Fátima Shrine, Fr Carlos Cabecinhas, had emphasised that “the message of Fátima is a message of peace.” He had urged Christians to support the statue’s visit with prayers “so that the Lord may grant peace to Syria and strengthen the Christians who live there.”
Catholics believe that the message of Fátima was delivered during apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 and that it includes the declaration that “no suffering is in vain.” The vision of the so-called third secret of Fátima ends with an image of hope, which is what the pilgrim statue is intended to convey.
In a related development concerning the ‘martyrdom’ of Christians as prophesied in the third secret of Fátima, a group of nuns from a Syrian monastery made an offering of three bullets and a handkerchief to the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima in honour of three Syrian Christians executed on September 4, 2013.
The Shrine reported that the three were killed by jihadists in Maaloula, one of the most beautiful and historic towns in Syria, because they would not renounce their Christian faith.

Christians worshipping in Syria

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Conman Ken sought, but not by police

In a strange twist in the tale of notorious conman Kenner Elias Jones, he is now being sought not by police but by his first wife who divorced him many years ago.
Having been deported from Canada and the United States, Ken Jones has managed to outwit police forces across Europe, including Portugal, while on the run and continuing his life of fantasy and fraud.
As exposed in the past by the BBC and in this blog, Jones has had a prolific criminal career spanning more than 40 years in which he has chalked up more than 60 convictions and plenty of imprisonments.
A highly intelligent and likeable Welshman, his skills are such that a senior American immigration officer who described him as “the best conman I have ever encountered in my entire career.”
An arrest warrant was issued in Britain in 2003 when he failed to turn up for a trial. Since then, police in the UK and countries in mainland Europe have been informed from time to time about his whereabouts and various alleged fraudulent activities, but they have taken no action against him.
His first wife, a Canadian, is not aiming to have him arrested; she wants to return some of his personal belongings and talk to him about a book she is writing. Donna Lee Mackenzie, a former TV journalist, has been trying without success to locate Jones via the internet.
He was last reported in Sweden, posing as a doctor and a priest, seeking political asylum as a refugee from Kenya.
The BBC reported that after fleeing from the UK twelve years ago, Jones spent seven years in Kenya pretending to be a doctor and a priest, although he had no qualifications in either of these fields. He is believed to be still married to his third wife, a Kenyan living in her homeland.
Jones set up a charity in Kenya called Luke's Fund, but left Africa in 2010 with unpaid debts of over $100,000. A warrant for his arrest exists in Kenya as well the UK, but not in mainland Europe.
He turned up in Portugal in 2011. A property agent in the town of Palmela, south of Lisbon, said Jones expressed interest in buying a house in the €400,000 to €600,000 price range. The property agent said Jones conned him into ‘lending’ hundreds of euros by claiming he needed the money urgently for medicine and other vital expenses, but that his foreign credit card was not compatible with the Portuguese system.
A Palmela travel agent said she handed over air tickets worth €2,500 on the understanding that Jones was transferring money from an overseas bank account so that his Kenyan wife and two adopted children could fly from Nairobi to Lisbon.
On realising she had been defrauded, the travel agent reported Jones to the criminal investigation police (PJ), but she never got paid for the tickets. The Cáritas charitable organisation in Sétubal is said to have paid for the Kenyan wife and adopted children to fly back to Nairobi at the end of their Portugal visit.
Jones’ next stop was in southeastern Spain where this picture was taken. His alleged behaviour included running up an unpaid bill of some €26,000 for a six-week stay and unnecessary medical tests in a district hospital.
In 2013 he turned up in Sweden. In a statement to the BBC in April this year police in Sweden confirmed they had received information about Ken Jones, but that it did not form the basis for investigating any suspected crimes he had committed in the country. The statement added that Jones was the subject of a police investigation in the UK, but because the police in Britain had not issued a European arrest warrant, they could not intervene.
We can now reveal that it was his estranged wife Donna Lee Mackenzie who posted a comment on Portugal Newswatch last month saying: “As someone who knew Kenner very well many years ago, I have some personal items I would like to return to him. Does anyone know how I could contact him to arrange this?  I will keep any such information confidential. If you can help, please reply to”.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Dethroning the kings of corruption

Just as the international news was getting really bleak and boring along comes Sepp Blatter to cheer things up and add to our waning excitement over former Prime Minister José Sócrates.
It turns out that apart from anything else, the diminutive Blatter is a dirty old man and nearly got a punch in the gob for eyeing up the glamorous girlfriend of John Dalaney, chief executive of the Irish Football Association. He stared at her for seven or eight whole seconds before Delaney warned him to “move on”, or words to that effect.
This revelation came after the shock news that thrice-married Blatter, aged 79, turned up at his re-election ceremony with another man’s wife, a stunningly attractive woman almost 30 years his junior.
All we are waiting for now is Sepp’s arrest. It may take a month or two, but stand by. Even the handful of people in this country who don’t follow football and had never heard of Fifa, or perhaps thought it was a brand of chocolate bar like KitKat or Crunchie, will be rejoicing. Corruption, particularly among the filthy rich and famous, is not appreciated, especially by those struggling with austerity.
Blatter’s tirade about how he was stitched up by the press and legal authorities raises smiles. We’d heard it all before from none other than Portugal’s former prime minister who is still banged up while a judicial enquiry continues into his alleged corruption and money-laundering activities.
Almost seven months after his arrest, Sócrates was this week faced with the choice of staying in his prison cell or accepting an offer of house arrest wearing an electronic bracelet. Easy decision for most of us, but José is not like us: he chose to stay in jail.
According to a survey by the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International, Portugal all but topped the list of nations urging Blatter’s removal from office. The Portuguese Football Federation and a whopping 97% of Portuguese respondents to the Transparency International global poll opposed his re-election.  
Transparency International has been critical of Portugal in the past but Portuguese prosecutors chalked up a major milestone by arresting the former prime minister last November. Newspapers in Portugal and beyond dubbed it a “political earthquake.”
Sepp Blatter knows a thing or two about earthquakes. He told critics it would take “an earthquake” to change Qatar's controversial hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Let the eruption begin!
The press used the word “earthquake” to describe the arrest of numerous senior Fifa officials, but that tremor was way, way off the Richter scale. The arrests are also said to be merely “the tip of the iceberg.” If so, Blatter is almost certain to be brought in shivering from the cold.
Sócrates was probably not in the same league as Blatter and there is no suggestion - not yet anyway - that the two collaborated. But both had been connected with scandals long before the one that brought them down. Both are suspected of involvement in complex “webs” of corruption featuring the movement of millions of euros around Switzerland and various dodgy offshore places. 
Although Sepp has yet to feel the hand on the back of his collar, his days of super luxury living may be severely numbered as his chirpy former Fifa friends start singing like canaries.
Both Blatter and Sócrates will have to come up with something better than the corny old line about being victims of press hate campaigns. Much of the groundwork on the Fifa scandal was done by top-notch investigative journalists. For once, the media are on the receiving end of accolades. Hard to believe it, eh?
Certain elements of the free press deserve hearty pats on the back for getting on with the job of digging out the truth about mega corruption and cover-ups, something that lackadaisical authorities in many countries have been turning a blind eye to for years.
Prosecutors in Portugal will probably be closely watching their counterparts in the US and Switzerland for hints on how to sharpen their knives, not only against the former prime minister, but the likely legions of other corrupt officials in this country.
       Even if he agreed to being released with a bangle, I think we could trust José, I think. But while Sepp remains at large, no woman can feel safe.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Amaral defiant about his Maddie book

Former detective Gonçalo Amaral has responded defiantly to the outcome of the civil action brought against him by Kate and Gerry McCann over his book about the investigation into their daughter’s disappearance.
The McCanns were awarded €500,000 plus interest in damages, but Amaral is adamant the book was not defamatory and was within his rights to freedom of expression. His views on the case are contained in an interview published in the Portuguese weekly magazine Nova Gente and reproduced on the website of Projecto Justiça Gonçalo Amaral.
“With my book I did not defame, nor did I have the intention to defame anyone, but merely to report what happened during the first five months of the investigation, thus replying to the attacks against my good name and my professional dignity.”
The information in the book is all in the Portuguese police case files and this was not in question during the McCann’s civil action, he said.
Asked if he felt wronged by the McCann’s legal action against him, Amaral insisted the parents were primarily responsible for their daughter’s disappearance because “they practiced a crime of exposing and abandoning defenceless children. The fact that they lost their daughter did not give them the right to sue anyone or to be compensated,” he said.
They can’t escape their guilt, which is enough to rob them of their sleep, to provoke a lack of appetite and even rage, but against themselves and not against someone who only wrote down what happened during the first five months of the investigation, according to what is in the case files.”
That Madeleine’s younger siblings may someday read his book and become traumatised by it did not concern him, he said.
Those two children were also abandoned for over five nights in a row and surely they will understand that what is written there is the result of a criminal investigation. There is a question that those two children will certainly ask when they grow up ,but that question will be directed at the parents: why were they abandoned, left to their own devices?”
As to what really motivated him to write Maddie: A Verdade da Mentira (Maddie, the Truth of the Lie), Amaral said he wrote it because his good name and professional honour, as well as that of those who worked with him, had been severely attacked.
Essentially the book was a way to reply to the insults he and his colleagues had been subjected to by the British press and others. “Deep down, that was it: they say we are incompetent, they say we are a third world police force, drunkards, fat, lazy, etc., etc., and the Judiciary Police does not set out to defend us. Therefore I turned to writing, reporting the investigation that had been carried out, so people could draw their own conclusions.”
In his latest interview, Amaral had no qualms about stating his views on the civil action or the McCann couple: “I am a free man and like any other citizen in this country I have the right to express my opinions.” 
He agreed that as a result of the court action he and his family had suffered greatly. “My life is gone. If I am alive, it’s due to the heart that I have.” But he does not intend to let the matter rest there or give up without a fight.
He reiterated that he will fight “until the last legal instance.” He intends to appeal the €500,000 damages verdict and is considering suing the McCanns.
Each thing in its own time, it won’t be only the McCanns, but their group of friends, and other people and entities that will be sued. There is an illicit action that was indeed performed, the neglect in guarding their children, which caused direct damages to many people, not only to myself, but for example to the Ocean Club workers who were fired and saw their lives change, many of them unjustly, passing from mere employees and heads of family to suspects in a criminal investigation while they had nothing to do with the matter.”
Meanwhile in the UK, the Mirror newspaper reports that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, as saying that the search for Madeleine will not end until all avenues are exhausted. He was reacting to concerns raised by the Police Federation about the millions of pounds of public money devoted to the case.
Sir Bernard said of the investigation: “It’s moving on apace at the moment in terms of the relationship with the Portuguese and that is to be welcomed. As long as there’s a basis for doing the investigation we will continue.”