Who is António Guterres, the new head of the United Nations?

Incoming secretary general is a former Portuguese PM, committed Catholic and socialist… he rejected an invite to lead the European Commission.

António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister who is poised to become the next UN secretary general, has built a reputation as a consensus builder whose preference for dialogue has sometimes been interpreted as a lack of authority. A Socialist with a strong Catholic faith, he is reported to have previously rejected an invite to lead the European Commission.

Started out as a social activist

Unlike many of his generation of Portuguese social democrats, Guterres (67) turned to politics from a background of Catholic social action rather than militant opposition to the authoritarian Salazar-Caetano regime (1926-74). After working as a young volunteer in Lisbon shanty towns, he says he came to see political reform as the most effective way of bringing about social change.

He joined the centre-left Socialist party in 1974 following a left-wing military coup that restored Portugal to democracy. He was first elected to parliament in 1976, rising through the ranks of the party to become secretary general in 1992.

Committed Catholic

Since his childhood in a small village in northern Portugal, Guterres has drawn sustenance and a sense of social responsibility from his strong Catholic faith. He read from the pulpit in church as a boy. At university studying electronic engineering, he joined the Group of Light, a club for young Catholics, where he met Father Vítor Melícias, a prominent Portuguese priest who remains a close friend and confidant.

As prime minister, Guterres voted against liberalising abortion in a referendum tabled by his own government in 1998. Abortion in Portugal was liberalised nine years later under a different Socialist administration.

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Chooses dialogue over confrontation

Guterres’s negotiating skills first came to prominence when he was elected prime minister in 1995. His Socialists were four seats short of an absolute majority. But against the expectations of even his own ministers, and for the first time in Portuguese politics, he managed to keep a minority government in office for a full four-year term.

He was re-elected prime minister in 1999, but remained one seat short of a majority. This time his wooing of a conservative deputy for support in a vital budget vote in return for government backing for a northern town’s threatened cheesemaking plant was seen as taking dialogue a step too far. Dubbed the “Limiano [the name of the cheese] budget”, the gaffe, acknowledged by Guterres as a mistake, has gone down in Portuguese political history.

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Turned down invite to head the European Commission

Guterres is seen by some as “the best president the commission never had”. In a recent biography, he is reported to have rejected an invitation to consider the post in 1998, while he was still prime minister, because of the need to look after his two children following the death of his wife, Luísa, earlier that year.

A child psychiatrist, she died at the age of 50 after a long illness. José Manuel Barroso, Guterres’s successor as prime minister, went on to become commission president in 2004. In 2001, Guterres married Catarina Vaz Pinto, a former secretary of state for culture.

Comfortable under a global spotlight

Despite more than 25 years in Portuguese politics, Guterres had always been attracted by the international stage. During his premiership, he oversaw Portugal’s successful bid to join the euro, ushering in a period of economic expansion that found expression in the staging of Expo 98 in Lisbon. His critics, however, have since attacked his premiership as the beginning of a period of high government borrowing and large deficits.

He played an important role in helping to secure the independence of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony that had been invaded and occupied by Indonesia, and, in 2001 presided at the signing of the Lisbon Strategy, a 10-year plan designed to make the European economy more competitive. Following bad local election results in 2001, he resigned as prime minister, saying he wanted to avert a deadlock in which Portugal risked becoming a “political quagmire”.

Quitting domestic politics for good, he served as president of Socialist International, the worldwide organisation of social democratic parties, from 1999-2005 before beginning a 10-year period as the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

His selection as UN secretary general will represent “the victory of a man of causes”, said Diogo Freitas do Amaral, a former Portuguese foreign minister and president of the UN General Assembly. “As a committed social Catholic, António Guterres will wage a combat against poverty and underdevelopment.”

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

This post first appeared in The Irsh Time

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