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Chapter 4. Government and Politics


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ON APRIL 25, 1974, the Portuguese armed forces overthrew the ruling corporative government in a virtually bloodless coup d'état. The coup ended a dictatorial regime established by António de Oliveira Salazar in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and carried on by his successor, Marcello José das Neves Caetano, after 1968. What began, however, as a simple attempt by the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas--MFA) to replace the government in power and change its policies quickly became not only a political event of his historic proportions, but also a full-scale social revolution.

The Revolution of 1974, as it came to be known, soon involved hundreds of thousands of Portuguese who took to the streets. The highly organized Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português--PCP), emerging from exile and the underground, soon joined forces with the MFA. Many far-left groups also participated in the upheaval, as did the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista--PS). Many members of the country's middle class joined the process, organizing in a matter of months political parties not permitted under the old regime.

On the social side, the events that began in the spring of 1974 drew on the deep frustrations of a society and people emerging from half a century of dictatorship, isolation, and backwardness. Children rebelled against their parents, enlisted men against officers, employees against employers, workers against factory owners, and tenant farmers against absentee landlords. There were, in short, two revolutions in Portugal: one was a process of political change that grew from a coup d'état that aimed only at changing the governmental structure at the top into a movement that touched every political relationship; the other was a profound social transformation that seemed bent on toppling all existing social relationships.

Portugal's opening to democracy attracted worldwide attention and was closely scrutinized. Portugal was, afterall, not a remote Third World state, but part of Western Europe. It belonged to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA--see Glossary) and was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). A full-scale revolution on European soil and the possibility of a strong communist party in power made the United States and Western European countries uneasy.

Eventually, however, the Portuguese revolution played itself out, and moderate forces came to direct the country's affairs. Elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1975 gave mainstream democratic political parties most of the body's seats and allowed the fashioning of the constitution of 1976. That constitution established parliamentary democracy while preserving many of the revolution's radical achievements and pledging a transition to socialism.

Constitutional amendments in 1982 strengthened the powers of the parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, and the prime minister, weakened those of the president, and placed the military under civilian control. Further amendments to the constitution in 1989 erased much of the document's ideological commitment to socialism and permitted the privatization of many of the economic assets nationalized in 1974 and 1975.

Seven national elections between 1976 and 1991 consolidated the place of the new system of democratic government, often called the Second Republic. In addition to the PCP and the PS, two other parties emerged as significant political forces: the Party of the Social Democratic Center (Partido do Centro Democrático Social--CDS), a right-wing Christian democratic party, and the Social Democrat Party (Partido Social Democrata-- PSD), a center-right group. Until the national election of 1987, when the PSD won a majority in the Portuguese parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, the parties to the right of the PCP had usually formed coalition governments. None of these governments, however, was strong enough to serve out a four-year legislative period until the PSD government did so in the 1987-91 period. Under the forceful and able leadership of Aníbal Cavaco Silva as prime minister, the single-party PSD cabinet was able to meet the challenges posed by Portugal's membership in the European Community (EC--see Glossary). Cavaco Silva led his party to a second majority in the October 1991 parliamentary elections and formed another PSD government, an indication perhaps that the new democracy was taking root.

The country's first president elected according to the terms of the constitution also contributed significantly to the establishment of parliamentary democracy. President António dos Santos Ramalho Eanes (1976-86), though of military background, abided by the new constitution and submitted to amendments that reduced his powers and returned the military to the barracks. These actions served the fledgling democracy perhaps even more than his extinguishing the coup of November 1975, the last attempt of the revolutionary left to seize political control. Mário Alberto Nobre Lopez Soares, the leader of the PS, succeeded Eanes in 1986 and became the country's first civilian president in five decades. Soares was an effective and popular president and easily won a second five-year term in January 1991.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Portugal's democracy was only a decade and a half old, but the transition to democracy seemed to have been highly successful. Although the country had many social and economic problems to solve, the economy had improved noticeably and political stability had been achieved. A free press served the public, a marked contrast to the censorship of the Salazar regime. These developments were testaments that Portugal had at last found a place in the community of Western democratic nations, a remarkable transition from the long dictatorship and the subsequent periods of revolutionary upheaval and government weakness and instability.

Data as of January 1993

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