Lisbon — The Palace of St. Benedict -- or Sao Bento, as he is known here -- is a rambling gray pile whose shabby remains of grandeur reflect Portugal's own good-humored decline. The palace is more in the news than usual because the 250 politicians who make a living out of visiting it two or three times a week have just voted themselves a 100 percent pay raise.
In Western Europe's poorest country, the public outcry parliament's self-awarded increase has provoked was predictable.Only six months ago, the same parliament approved a government program that ruled that raises for all those in public pay would be limited to 16 percent this year. The armed forces and civil servants were made to stick to the target, but the deputies decided they were a case apart.
To make matters worse, the pay award was voted just a few hours before the deputies began a three-month summer holiday. Having spent most of their debates earlier in the year approving votes of protest or congratulations about events in countries as far afield as Northern Ireland, El Salvador, and Poland, the deputies found they had not left themselves enough time to legislate on matters nearer home.
To avoid delaying their holidays, the deputies had to cram their work into the last few remaining sessions. Parliament finally rose after a 22-hour nonstop voting spree.
It was 3:00 a.m. when the ruling Democratic Alliance presented its proposals to raise the deputies' salaries and expenses and award them life pensions for something that was officially described as the "risk of being a politician." Half the deputies usually do not bother to attend the debates and many of those who do, concentrate on reading newspapers in the debating chamber. This time, however, both government and opposition benches were full and attentive.
The deputies of the Democratic Alliance -- Social Democrats, Monarchists, and Christian Democrats -- voted for. The main opposition party -- voted for. The main opposition party -- the Socialits -- abstained, and the rest, including the pro-Soviet Communist Party, voted against. As the Democratic Alliance has a majority, the raises were approved.
As Portuguese Communist Party leader alvaro Cunhal saw it, the pay increase created a "privileged class of professional parasites."
In the rabbit warren of tiny streets at the foot of the Sao Bento Palace, craftsmen spend all day hunched over lathes in tiny underground workshops with little light and almost no ventilation. To them and to most other Portuguese, the pay rises the deputies have just voted themselves appear princely.
The new salaries are still very small compared to those earned in other European parliaments.Under the new system, a Portuguese deputy will get a tax-free salary of 840,000 escudos ($13,000) a year. That is exactly what the head of state earns. The deputies also gave President Antonio Ramalho Eanes a 60 percent pay rise, but General Eanes said he did not think the Portuguese people could afford it.
With the Western Europe's highest infant mortality rate (excluding Turkey), the lowest per capita income, and a 70 percent illiteracy rate in the country, Eanes' refusal may have been a shrewd move.
When Portugal joins the European community (EC) as it hopes to in 1984, it will be the most backward member of the Community. The government frankly admits that the challenge it faces is taking the country out of the 19th century and into the 20th.
One out of 10 Portuguese is handicapped. Much of this is the result of the former colonial wars, but it is also from malnutrition, sprawling slums where whole families sleep in one bed and where incest and prostitution are rife, and bad sanitation in cities that spews untreated sewage into the sea.
The Portuguese refer to this as "the real country." For years one of the Alliance's best thinkers wrote a newspaper column called "Wonderland" that concentrated on the ravings of the Lisbon political establishment. Never has the contrast between "the real country" and "wonderland" appeared more obvious to the electorate than over the deputies' pay rise.
One of the main reasons invoked for the rise by the Alliance deputies was that parliament's prestige had to be reinforced. But even the Lisbon newspaper Diario de Noticias, which usually takes a pro-government line, said in a front-page editorial that the whole affair had further undermined the prestige of Portugal's political class.
The day after the pay rise, the right-wing weekly Tempo started publishing a supplement of horror stories about what the right had to suffer at the hands of the left during the 1974-75 revolution. The first one told how leftist workers staged a siege of the Sao Bento Palace in November 1975. It was a lesson that was apparently lost on today's Portuguese deputies.