Portugal mourns the death of Jorge Sampaio, who showed teeth in Portuguese presidential powers

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Former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio, who made national history in 2005 with an extraordinary use of his powers to dissolve parliament and oust an unstable majority government, died on Friday at the age of 81.

The cause of death was not disclosed, though Sampaio had been hospitalized since Aug. 27 with breathing difficulties.

After an uneventful first term in 1996-2001, the affable Socialist former lawyer won another five-year mandate that turned out to be more turbulent and showed the might of presidential powers in what is usually a ceremonial office.

With the budget deficit rising and Portugal teetering on the verge of recession, the Socialists lost a snap parliamentary election in 2002 to a centre-right coalition of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party.

In 2004, Sampaio’s refusal to hold an early election after Jose Manuel Durao Barroso resigned as prime minister to lead the European Commission triggered fierce protests from left-leaning parties including the Socialists.

In an attempt to ensure political stability, he named another Social Democrat, Pedro Santana Lopes, as premier, only to conclude four months later that the new cabinet was not achieving the desired results and lacked overall credibility.

He used his presidential powers, often dubbed the Atomic Bomb in Portugal, to break up parliament and call new elections for February 2005, which brought the Socialists back to the helm under Prime Minister Jose Socrates.

In his biography, Sampaio told the author, Jose Pedro Castanheira, that he was “fed up with Santana Lopes as prime minister as he was leaving the country adrift.”

He was the only president to have ever used that power while a government with a parliamentary majority ruled Portugal.

Jorge Fernando Branco de Sampaio was born into a liberal middle-class family in Lisbon. As a child, he lived with his parents in the United States, where his father studied public health and later in England. He spoke fluent English.

He studied law at Lisbon University and in the 1960s the red-haired, bespectacled lawyer gained prominence defending political prisoners of the fascist regime of Antonio Salazar.

Sampaio first became politically active in the clandestine left-wing opposition. After the 1974 revolution that brought democracy to Portugal, he founded the Socialist Left Movement but soon abandoned the project and in 1978 joined the Socialist Party, becoming its Secretary General in 1989.

He served as mayor of Lisbon in 1990-1995, abandoning the second term to run for president in the January 1996 election, which he won in the first round with almost 54% of the vote.

As president, he oversaw the transfer of former Portuguese territory Macao to China in 1999.

A fervent supporter of the Sporting soccer team, Sampaio had two children with his second wife Maria Jose Rita.

Photo: (FILE) – Former Portuguese president Jorge Sampaio, in Lisbon, Portugal, in January 2020. EPA-EFE/MARIO CRUZ