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Then Came A Gandhi

Lisbon mayor Antonio Costa, of Goan origin, may head Portugal in 2015

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Then Came A Gandhi
Getty Images (From Outlook 27 January 2014)
Then Came A Gandhi

The Socialist’s Path

  • Born in Lisbon in 1961, Antonio Luis Santos da Costa is of Goan origin. His father spent most of his youth in the former Portuguese colony in India.
  • In 1991, Costa became member of the Portuguese parliament, presenting as many as 20 law projects
  • He was secretary of state from 1995 to 1997 and minister of parliamentary affairs (1997-99); organised Expo 98 which turned out to be a great success
  • From October 1999 to April 2002, served as justice minister
  • From June 2004 to March 2005, he was a member of the European parliament and was also elected as one of its 14 vice-presidents
  • In 2007, he was elected mayor of Lisbon. He’s in his third term now.
  • Since 2008, Costa has participated every Thursday in Quadratura do Circulo, a TV show where he debates current affairs with two right-wing politicians


In the political spectrum of Portugal, Antonio Luis Santos da Costa is a rare bird, for people actually like him. By the end of last September, the 52-year-old socialist had been re-elec­ted mayor of Lisbon, with a third consecutive mandate (and last, according to the law), winning 50.9 per cent of the vote and 11 counsellors out of 17. This is an amazing feat given that the Port­ug­uese political class has lost all credibility in the eyes of the electorate. Many already see the mayor breaking his four-year mandate to compete for the presidency of the Socialist Party in order to make himself prime ministerial candidate in the 2015 legislative elections.

That may be a long way off, but clearly Costa is being watched closely. Born in 1961 in Lisbon, Costa has an Indian connection. His father, Orlando da Costa, a well-known novelist who also wrote essays on Rabindranath Tagore, was born in Mozambique, but spent most of his youth in Goa where his own father, Luis Afonso Maria da Costa, was born and brought up. The latter was a descendant of reputed Hindu families from the Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community that converted to Catholicism during the Portuguese colonial era.

In fact, in the aftermath of his victory, Lisbon’s mayor was reported to have said that Lisbon could be the Atlantic business hub for India. But it is his missionary style, rather than Indian origins, that has earned Costa the moniker “Gandhi of Lisbon”. This flattering denomination came after the mayor decided to move his office to the heart of the Mouraria neighbourhood, bang in the middle of drug trafficking and prostitution hubs. Aside from being a successful media coup, this was an unexpected gesture, bringing the focus on one of the city’s oldest and poorest quarters where dozens of ethnic communities live, for better or worse, closely together.

Around the little square where Anto­nio Costa had the city council migrate, many construction sites are buzzing. Buildings covered with beautiful azu­le­jos, the traditional Portu­g­uese pain­ted tiles, are being ren­ov­ated. Slowly, Mou­raria is being rehabilitated. Today, the area attracts hip little businesses and tro­ops of tourists. A success Antonio Costa has vowed to replicate in other less-endowed neighbourhoods of the capital. Beatriz Silva, the owner of a small coffee shop in the building where Costa works, confides that occasionally the mayor stops by. “He’s a very warm man; if someone talks to him on the street, he will take time to listen,” she assures you.

“Antonio Costa is a statesman, a leader and most of all he’s of a species our country sorely lacks— a politician with a heart.”
Carlos Cesar, Socialist Party president of Acores

His balancesheet at the city council is indeed impressive. When the trained lawyer and father of two first took office in 2007, the capital was overridden with debt. No longer. Costa also managed to reduce the debt without increasing taxes. “Everybody likes him because he’s a bon vivant, he doesn’t take himself too seriously,” says retired businessman Arnaldo Monteiro. “He also has friends everywhere and he doesn’t mind having lunch in a small restaurant for ten euros.” Lisbon folks appreciate their mayor also because he is perceived as a good manager, a politician whom they can trust.

It’s this goodwill that is fuelling talk that Costa is set for a higher office. Por­tugal is going through troubled times: to satisfy the requirements of the “troika” (the European Central Bank, European Union and Internat­io­nal Monetary Fund) which lent the country 78 billion euros, the ruling Pedro Passos Coelho government has relied on increasing taxes and cutting services. Salaries in the public sector have been cut by over 30 per cent in the last four years and unemployment has topped 15 per cent (among the 15-24 age group, it’s reached almost 40 per cent).

Silvia de Oliveira, chief editor of business website Dinheiro Vivo, writes that despite all efforts to lead a charge against the government by Antonio Jose Martins Seguro, secretary of the main opposition Socialist Party, he is not the leader they want or need. Their de facto leader is no doubt Antonio Costa, because of his political background and his statesman image. “Lisb­on’s last municipal elections were Antonio Cos­ta’s prime ministerial pre-ele­ctoral campaign,” writes de Oliveira.

Costa may claim a prime ministerial candidacy is out of the question and that for the moment his only priority is the administration of Lisbon, but his every gesture seems to project him as a future chief of government. Already,  with the launch of his 2012 book Caminho Aberto (Open Path), a collection of his speeches, opinion pieces et al from the last 20 years—on topics as varied as immigration, political and judiciary reforms and the strengthening of the rule of law—many observers see his first steps towards an eventual candidacy.

One of Portugal’s most respected intellectual figures, sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, presenting the book, praised its author’s “political genius” and clai­med that he was the only credible alternative capable of negotiating with international creditors. Qualifying the mayor of Lisbon as the symbol of a new generation of social democrats that are “truly socialist”, he said Costa was the rare international example of a politician who was able to ally political theory and practice. And it looks like on the internet too, there are many who share his analysis. The ‘Antonio Costa para primeiro ministro’ Facebook page has a growing number of virtual followers.

Ana Paula Carreira, director of the law faculty at the University of Lisbon, rec­k­ons the Lisbon mayor knows how to tackle problems frontally, without reco­urse to dogmatism. “He’s full of good intentions and good ideas, and people like him.” On the other hand, though, she’s sceptical about Costa having the necessary technical skills to manage the country. “I think he has a good chance of winning the next elections, but only because of the massive unpopularity of the current government.”

Whatever the outcome of the next elections in Portugal, the next government will have its hands full. The Portuguese are an unhappy lot and they have suffered from the severe crisis since 2009 and from the austerity measures adopted subsequently. It would be then in the fullness of things if a smiling Gandhi of Lisbon applies the calming balm, dipping into a very Portuguese-Goan concept: susegad.

By Andree-Marie Dussault in Lisbon

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