LISBON, Portugal — Soon after he was elected leader of Portugal’s center-left Socialist Party in 1992, Antonio Guterres added a red rose motif to the clenched, raised fist which was the party’s traditional symbol.
It was a political re-branding that also captured the softer, kinder image of Guterres. And it paid dividends: after a decade out of power, the Socialists won a 1995 election and went into government with Guterres as their prime minister.
Guterres has now been tapped to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next U.N. secretary-general. The U.N. Security Council will meet Thursday morning to formally approve Guterres and recommend his candidacy to the 193-member General Assembly, which must give final approval.
Guterres made his name in the 1990s as one of a new European generation of modernizing Socialists that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Guterres was admired for being eloquent, smart and moderate. But over eight years as Portuguese leader, he also became known as a politician who shied away from unpopular decisions and sometimes found it hard to say no. He resigned halfway through his second term, when his party’s popularity began to fade.
Under Guterres’ leadership, the Socialists jettisoned their extreme leftist policies and became a moderate party occupying the political center ground.
Guterres — fluent in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and with a keen interest in medieval history, cinema and opera — appealed to Portugal’s new middle-class, which had emerged on the back of a surge in wealth following the country’s 1986 membership in the European Union.
Guterres, a staunch supporter of Europe’s moves towards closer political and economic integration, called for EU member nations to surrender more power to centralized institutions.
As prime minister, he adopted business-friendly policies and pursued extensive privatizations of state companies, while pouring money into social issues such as public education and health care. He passed a law establishing a minimum income for families, with the government providing funds for the poorest so they could meet that threshold.
Perhaps Guterres’ greatest feat in Portugal was pushing through the financial reforms and insisting on the government spending limits required to qualify the country for membership in the euro, Europe’s shared currency, when many observers had predicted the country was too fiscally lax and wouldn’t make the grade.
His minority government engaged in some tough political horse-trading to get its policies approved by parliament. Famously, Guterres had to promise an opposition lawmaker government funds for a cheese factory in his district to ensure the passage of the annual state budget.
His detractors in Portugal accused him of failing to undertake tough and potentially vote-losing reforms, including an overhaul of the country’s inefficient health service and snail-pace legal system.
His critics also complained that he lacked steel. One newspaper described Guterres’ time in power as “a permanent balancing act” of trying not to upset anyone.
Guterres was minded, for example, to accept scientific research that argued the alcohol limit permitted for driving should be lowered to ensure road safety. But after an outcry from the wine-growing country’s drinks industry, which said the measure would cost jobs, he backed down.
After seven years, the short, jowly politician had had enough of the political tension. Guterres unexpectedly resigned as prime minister after the Socialists lost heavily in municipal elections in 2001. In his resignation speech he gave a mysterious explanation for his decision, and he has never clarified what he meant: “I am doing it to avoid the country falling into a political swamp,” he said.
He then turned his back on Portuguese politics, choosing a career far from home as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he held for 10 years up to 2015.
That post was as much a calling as a job. Even while he was at Lisbon’s prestigious Technical University, where he was an outstanding student, Guterres found time to help out people in poor neighborhoods, organize children’s summer camps and assist flood victims.
Volunteering wasn’t enough, however, and he once said he turned to politics in search of a more effective way of fighting poverty and misery.
“I also found out that politics has its limits,” he said.
Nevertheless, as the U.N. refugee chief Guterres stood at the heart of international emergencies that were far more politically complex than the domestic aggravations he turned his back on.
Guterres was in the thick of the Syrian refugee crisis in recent years. He appeared in the spotlight alongside actress Angelina Jolie as the UNHCR special envoy issued pleas for help for the refugees while he aimed sharp rebukes at the EU’s lack of tolerance and generosity.
His two terms in office brought wide praise, including from outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who described him as “one of the U.N.’s great leaders.”
Guterres has seen the U.N. from the inside, and he has plans to change it: he wants more funding for the institution and wants to work with the World Bank, non-governmental organizations and private companies to ensure it.
He also wants more reliable contributions from donor countries that sometimes are reluctant to write checks. In return, he can show he’s no extravagant spender: he reduced staff at UNHCR’s Geneva headquarters by over 20 per cent and made the organization’s cost effectiveness a priority.