First Woman Chief Cristas Stirs Up Portugal’s Conservative Party

  • Assuncao Cristas was elected leader of the CDS party in March
  • Cristas is most visible leader to oppose to ruling Socialists

Assuncao Cristas has become the new face of the opposition in Portugal.

The 41-year-old mother of four in March became the first woman to head the Portuguese conservative party, CDS-PP, the smaller of the two opposition parties that jointly formed the previous government. Cristas’s high profile and vocal presence have enabled her to outshine the leader of the opposition Social Democrats as they take on the Socialists, who formed a government in November with backing from left-wing allies. Cristas says the CDS and the Social Democrats will need a majority in parliament to govern again.

Assuncao Cristas

Photographer: Estela Silva/EPA

“I will work so that CDS does its best and contributes with the largest possible number to that majority of members in parliament,” she said in an interview in June at the party’s headquarters in the heart of Lisbon.

Her goal is becoming critical because Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s government is more concerned about appeasing its left-wing partners than creating confidence in the economy, she said. The Portuguese central bank’s coincident indicator, which combines measures of economic activity and confidence levels, dropped below zero in May to the lowest since August 2013. At the same time, the European Commission is looking into slapping sanctions against Portugal for breaching budget-deficit limits.

“I don’t know who the prime minister talks to but I’ve been going from north to south of the country and I speak to many businessmen and many people and what I hear is disbelief and everyone in suspense, waiting to see what will happen,” Cristas said.

Fresh Face

The Social Democrat and CDS coalition won 107 seats in the October elections but failed to retain its majority in the 230-seat parliament. The Socialists, who promised an end to austerity, were catapulted to power with Prime Minister Costa’s minority administration propped up in parliament by the Left Bloc, Communists and Greens.

Cristas is eclipsing ex-premier Pedro Passos Coelho, the leader of the former coalition partner, to take on the mantle of the putative opposition leader. Coelho has taken something of a backseat, constrained after having led a government that imposed austerity as part of the country’s bailout, and struggling to shift from his stately prime ministerial position to a more media-savvy role of an opposition leader.

‘A Novelty’ 

“The party needed someone that could move away from the past, and Assuncao would do a better job there than I,” said Nuno Melo, who has been with the CDS since the 1990’s, is vice-president of the party and a European parliament member. He backed down from running for leader of the party and decided to support Cristas after former deputy prime minister Paulo Portas ended his almost two-decade reign heading CDS.

“At CDS there was a change in leadership, so there is effectively a novelty there,” said Antonio Costa Pinto, a professor of political science at the University of Lisbon. “The biggest party in a coalition always suffers hardest. That’s the norm. The Social Democrats will always be more associated with austerity and the troika agreement.”

Less tainted by the previous government’s record, Cristas can afford to be more visible.

High Profile

“I wouldn’t say it’s a discreet leadership,” Melo said. “I think she’s grabbed the party well; you don’t hear anyone speak of Portas anymore and, coming after such an outstanding leadership, that’s saying something.”

The new leader has a high-profile presence. She gave dozens of interviews in the run up to her election, even on morning TV talk shows. She is frequently seen at public events, including the Euro 2016 football championship, and regularly updates her Facebook page with the party’s latest initiatives and comments on world events.

“Politics is still a world of men but I don’t think it’s due to prejudice,” Cristas said. “When a woman turns up and dares to jump to the front line and speaks well, everyone goes ah! in amazement and then she starts to be invited and is well received. Women don’t reveal themselves, don’t make themselves known, and in politics there is no other way to make yourself known but to show up and speak.”

‘Very Pragmatic’

Cristas was first elected as a member of parliament in 2009, in her mid-30s. She had been invited to join the party two years earlier after then-leader Portas heard the law professor speaking in a television debate ahead of a national referendum on abortion in which she was campaigning against its legalization.

Cristas has used her passion for issues to draw others to the party. One such person is Teresa Anjinho, a former parliament member roped in to join the CDS in 2011.

“She approaches us in a very enticing and enthusiastic way, it’s almost disconcerting,” Anjinho, 41, said in a telephone interview. “That’s how she started in politics, she felt she might be useful. She’s very pragmatic.”

Proposals on education, policies to promote the birth rate and support for the elderly have been discussed in parliament through the party’s initiative. Despite the new drive, opinion polls published monthly by newspaper Expresso have shown support for the CDS declining to 6.5 percent in a July 8 survey from 8 percent on March 11.

‘Ambitious Woman’

An advocate of work-life balance -- Cristas had her youngest daughter while she was agriculture minister, the first woman in the country to hold that post. Her party meetings are prepared beforehand, and discussions at the end of the day always start after dinnertime, so Cristas can have supper with her family, and finish early so everyone can go home at a reasonable time.

She has big issues to worry about: the Bank of Portugal sees the country’s economy growing 1.3 percent this year, less than a previous forecast, on weaker exports and investment. Cristas is driving the opposition’s response to the dimming prospects.

“She’s an ambitious woman, she’s never hidden that,” Anjinho said. “I think she will surprise in time because people will start seeing she’s really here to work.”