Will António Guterres be the UN’s Best Ever Secretary General?

From The Guardian, January 1, 2017

by Angelique Chrisafis and Julian Borger

Cultured and consensual, the Portuguese politician has had the perfect preparation for the United Nations’ top job.

Photograph: Mario Cruz/EPA

When António Guterres resigned halfway through his second term as Portuguese prime minister in 2002 because his minority government was floundering, he did something unusual for a man who had seen the highest reaches of power.

Several times a week, he went to slum neighbourhoods on the edge of Lisbon to give free maths tuition to children.

“He never allowed a journalist to go with him or let himself be filmed or photographed, and he never let journalists talk to any of his students,” said Ricardo Costa, editor-in-chief of the Portuguese SIC News, who covered Guterres’s political career. The former prime minister told his surprised students that what he was doing was personal and not for show.

The Portuguese socialist, who becomes the next UN secretary general on Sunday, is an intellectual who grew up under Portugal’s dictatorship and came of age with the 1974 revolution that ended 48 years of authoritarian rule.

Crucial to understanding Guterres, 67, is his Christian faith: his progressive Catholicism always informed his brand of social democratic politics.

In the heady days of Portugal’s revolution, it was rare to be a practising Catholic in a new Socialist party where many members had Marxist backgrounds. But Guterres, a star engineering student who grew a moustache in honour of the Chilean left’s Salvador Allende, would eventually become a modernising leader, arguing that his mission was social justice and equality.

On the Portuguese left, faith was a delicate issue that required discretion. Under Guterres, the country held a referendum in 1998 on a proposal to liberalise the strict abortion laws. Socialist MPs had a free vote and, as prime minister, Guterres chose not to officially campaign. But it was publicly known that he opposed changing the law, which irked many in his party. The no vote against liberalising the abortion law narrowly won, but turnout was so low that the result was not binding. Abortion laws were finally relaxed in 2007 after a second referendum.

Born in Lisbon, Guterres spent stretches of his childhood with relatives in the countryside, where he saw the poverty of rural life under the dictatorship, and later volunteered with Catholic student groups on social projects in the capital.

In 1976, the young engineering lecturer was elected a Socialist MP in Portugal’s first democratic vote since the revolution. In parliament, he was a fearsome orator. Such was his talent for verbally destroying political opponents, he became known as “the talking pickaxe”.