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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 15:10 GMT
Portuguese Socialists in disarray
Jaime Gama
Jaime Gama cited personal reasons for the decision
Portugal's Foreign Minister Jaime Gama has withdrawn his bid for the leadership of the ruling Socialist Party just 24 hours after he announced it.

Mr Gama cited personal reasons for his sudden change of heart, which adds to confusion caused by the surprise resignation of Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Guterres at the weekend.

Antonio Guterres
Prime Minister Guterres resigned in the face of a crushing defeat

"I regret not having been able to do it yesterday but it's only today that I've realised these personal difficulties," Mr Gama said.

Observers say it is a sign of the disarray in the party following the party's crushing defeat in this weekend's municipal elections which prompted Mr Guterres' resignation.

Mr Guterres will remain in post until a replacement is found.

European Justice Commissioner Antonio Vitorino and Portuguese Public Works Minister Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues are among those tipped as contenders.

Joao Soares, the son of the country's former president, Mario Soares, has also been named as a possible candidate.

Reports in the Portuguese media say the former president was angry that Mr Gama put his name forward for a position that he regarded as a suitable one for his son.

Elections vs new leader

It is still not clear whether Portugal's President, Jorge Sampaio, who is holding consultations with parties from across the political spectrum, will decide whether to call fresh elections or to appoint a new prime minister.

But many analysts expect him to opt for elections, as the Socialists do not have an absolute majority in parliament.

He is expected to make a decision between Christmas and early January.

The popular will is to start life anew and to have a new government

Popular Party leader
On Thursday Mr Sampaio is meeting the Socialists, the centre-right Social Democrats - who performed strongly in Sunday's local polls - and the Communist Party.

On Wednesday representatives of Portugal's smaller parties urged him to call elections.

"The popular will is to start life anew and to have a new government," said the leader of the Popular Party, Paulo Portas, after meeting Mr Sampaio.

Left Bloc leader Luis Fazenda described early elections as an "indisputable solution".

The Greens said elections should be called, but not until April, to give the parties time to prepare.

The Socialists' defeat was seen as a backlash against poor economic management and the bungling of several high-profile issues, including an unpopular law on drink-driving - which has now been suspended.

See also:

17 Dec 01 | Europe
Portugal PM resigns
10 Oct 99 | Europe
Portugal goes to the polls
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Portugal
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