Antonio Guterres – the inconspicuous UN chief

Antonio Guterres – the inconspicuous UN chief


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Everybody was waiting for an eastern European woman to be elected as UN secretary general, and finally the chosen person is another besuited Western diplomat: former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres.

Who is Guterres? A devout Catholic and a Marxist militant in his youth, he is the man who in 2004 refused the presidency of the EU Commission. Unfortunately, we cannot praise him for that: we got ten years of Barroso instead.

He also refused to contemplate last year the presidency of his own country. All this because he preferred to be at the UN, head of the High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he held for 10 years up to 2015.

More popular abroad than at home, Guterres, 67, has now been tapped to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next UN secretary-general.

Contrary to the former Maoist militant Barroso, Guterres has always remained faithful to the ideals of the left.

Socialist MP at 27, he climbed the stairs and, soon after he was elected leader of Portugal‘s center-left Socialist Party in 1992, Guterres added a red rose motif to the clenched, raised fist which was the party‘s traditional symbol.

It was a political re-branding that also captured the softer, kinder image of Guterres. And it paid dividends: after a decade out of power, the Socialists won a 1995 election and went into government with Guterres as their prime minister.

Guterres made his name in the 1990s as one of a new European generation of modernizing Socialists that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Guterres was admired for being eloquent, smart and moderate. But over eight years as Portuguese leader, he also became known as a politician who shied away from unpopular decisions and sometimes found it hard to say no. He resigned halfway through his second term, when his party‘s popularity began to fade.

Under Guterres‘ leadership, the Socialists abandoned their extreme leftist policies and became a moderate party occupying the political center ground. Guterres — fluent in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and with a keen interest in medieval history, cinema and opera — appealed to Portugal‘s new middle-class, which had emerged on the back of a surge in wealth following the country‘s 1986 membership in the European Union.

As prime minister, he adopted business-friendly policies and pursued extensive privatizations of state companies, while pouring money into social issues such as public education and health care. He passed a law establishing a minimum income for families, with the government providing funds for the poorest so they could meet that threshold.

His minority government engaged in some tough political horse-trading to get its policies approved by parliament. Famously, Guterres had to promise an opposition lawmaker government funds for a cheese factory in his district to ensure the passage of the annual state budget.

His detractors in Portugal accused him of failing to undertake tough and potentially vote-losing reforms, including an overhaul of the country‘s inefficient health service and snail-pace legal system.

His critics also complained that he lacked guts. One newspaper described Guterres‘ time in power as „a permanent balancing act“ of trying not to upset anyone.

Guterres was minded, for example, to accept scientific research that argued the alcohol limit permitted for driving should be lowered to ensure road safety. But after an outcry from the wine-growing country‘s drinks industry, which said the measure would cost jobs, he backed down.

Nevertheless, as the UN refugee chief was in the thick of the Syrian refugee crisis in recent years. He appeared in the spotlight alongside actress Angelina Jolie as the UNHCR special envoy issued pleas for help for the refugees while he aimed sharp rebukes at the EU‘s lack of tolerance and generosity.

He also wants more reliable contributions from donor countries that sometimes are reluctant to write checks. In return, he can show he‘s no extravagant spender: he reduced staff at UNHCR‘s Geneva headquarters by over 20% and made the organization‘s cost effectiveness a priority.

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