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New Star, Veteran Leftist Rock Portugal's Political Stage

  • Reuters

Left Bloc banner featuring candidate Catarina Martins in Lisbon, Portugal, Oct. 19, 2015.

Left Bloc banner featuring candidate Catarina Martins in Lisbon, Portugal, Oct. 19, 2015.

An actress-turned-politician and a wrinkled former metalworker may hold the key to whether Portugal ends up with its first left-wing government in decades after this month's inconclusive election.

Catarina Martins, 42, is only just getting used to the political limelight as head of the Left Bloc while Communist Party head Jeronimo de Sousa has honed his skills attacking capitalism for four decades in parliament.

But Martins is the rising star. She is preparing to play her biggest role yet by bringing her anti-austerity party into a government led by mainstream Socialists but also needing Sousa's Communists to win a parliamentary majority and so oust incumbent premier Pedro Passos Coelho and his conservatives.

Like Greece's Alexis Tsipras, she is a fresh face who fired up young supporters who had lost hope during the tough austerity imposed by Passos Coelho's government under a bailout by the European Union and IMF.

But she is also determined to learn from the turbulent experience of Tsipras and his Syriza party, now back in government after his resignation earlier this year but forced to implement a bail-out package it had once railed against.

"Syriza was overconfident. We need to be careful," mother-of-two Martins, a trained linguist known for her trademark blue jeans and blouse attire, said after Tsipras resigned in August.

Where others shout, she speaks with disarming cool, striking a chord in Portugal's male-dominated politics by mixing a tough message of defending salaries, pensions and the welfare state with a soft delivery.

"I think this would be a good opportunity for Dr. Pedro Passos Coelho to apologize to the country," she said with a slight smile of the incumbent premier's austerity program during one pre-election debate.

'Catarina the Great'

Martins was first elected to parliament for the Left Bloc in 2009 but both her math-teacher father and brother were involved with the party in its early days in 2000.

The party's poor results in a 2011 snap election, when ex-leader Francisco Louca failed to capitalize on the looming debt crisis which forced Portugal to request a bailout, created the conditions for her rise to sole party leader in 2014.

Then this month, despite Portugal's economy having returned to growth and exited its bailout, she led her party to its best ever electoral result with 10.2 percent — a gain which helped prevent Passos Coelho from securing a new majority.

Martins' fans summed up their hopes by starting to call her "Catarina the Great" during the campaign, while some media dubbed her "Hurricane Catarina" after her party's late surge.

"During the last year when she was put in the spotlight, there was strong empathy (by voters) directly with Catarina, it was very clear," said Left Bloc campaign director Ricardo Moreira. "She had the capacity to capture the hopes of people."

Martins must now carefully weigh up the possible negative impact on her popularity of joining a government led by more moderate Socialists, and what policies she is ready to accept.

She has said she would stick to EU deficit-cutting goals — already a high price to pay — but insists that salary and pensions cuts have to be reversed.

President Anibal Cavaco Silva starts consultations with party leaders on Tuesday before choosing a prime minister.

Passos Coelho still expects to get the nod, but will need the support of Socialist leader Antonio Costa — who looks more keen to team up with Sousa and Martins.

"Catarina has always been clear and I prefer to use her words: 'The Left Bloc wants to be government in Portugal,'" said Moreira.

End of Portugal's 'Berlin Wall'?

But for all her ambitions, for a leftist government to win a parliamentary majority it must also successfully woo Communist leader Sousa, whose party won 8.2 percent of the vote.

For years, Sousa, 68, dominated Portugal's hard left with his dogged defense of worker rights and assertion that Portugal must prepare to leave the euro and reclaim "monetary sovereignty."

Yet some of those close to Sousa, who first became a member of parliament in 1975 and has run for president twice, believe he may be more willing to compromise to boot out the center-right than many think.

"He is not dogmatic and he's definitely not a rigid, heartless Stalinist that the media sometimes try to paint," said Clemente Alves, a fellow Communist who has known Sousa for 40 years, describing him as "a normal man" who likes to hang out with friends telling jokes, playing cards and enjoying a drink.

"For his part, he'll do everything for this government to end and for the Socialists to rule instead," said Alves.

Martins and Sousa have both told Costa that they are ready to support him — be it via a coalition government or parliament alliance — in a turnaround for the hard left after years of opposing his more moderate Socialists.

Costa has described this shift as already marking the "fall of the Berlin Wall in Portugal."

Still, analysts say Sousa may be the hardest to convince after his long history in opposition.

"I have no doubt that if (Sousa) reaches a compromise with the other parties he will meet all the conditions," said Alves. "But others have to do their part, if he sees that the others are not sticking to the terms he will acknowledge that it was a mistake and then there is no deal."