Lisbon — If a popular president steps down from his elected post and tells the people to vote for him in general elections rather than for the established parties of the right and left and he wins, will the result be a democracy?
That is the question Portugal, a country that was brought out of a half century of dictatorship by a military coup only eight years ago, is having to ask itself following the latest political declaration of President Antonio Ramalho Eanes.
General Eanes told the Portuguese he might resign if parliament stripped him of too many of his powers when the 1976 Constitution is revised this spring.
It was left to the President's men to explain that if General Eanes did step down, he would tell the people whom to vote in as his successor. In other words, if he is thwarted as President, he will resign and come back as prime minister.
The possibility of a Bonapartist regime is a nightmare that has haunted Portugal's politicians ever since they picked a little-known officer to run as president on an anti-Communist ticket in 1976. It has worried them even more since General Eanes was reelected for a five-year term in December 1980 with the votes of the Communists, the Socialists, and quite a lot of the centrists and right-wingers who backed him in 1976 and ignored their parties' pleas not to vote him back into office.
At issue is whether this small but strategically important country in NATO's southern flank remains in the mainstream of European politics. Does it develop as a parliamentary democracy in which soldiers limit their activities to war games? Or does it opt for a regime of personal power dominated by a military strong man, albeit with parliamentary trappings?
Much of the responsibility for the crisis created by General Eanes's threats lies with Portugal's political parties. From communists to conservatives, they have all had a go at ruling this country since the 1974 revolution.
The ruling Democratic Alliance has a comfortable parliamentary majority, but it has been torn by highly publicized infighting for over a year.
The Socialist opposition has not come up with any real alternatives, and it is hard not to see the consensus between the socialists and the Democratic Alliance on how to revise the Constitution as anything but an agreement on cutting up the cake: You can have the icing as long as we get the cherries.
As the political bickering gets worse and governments succeed one another every few months, the prestige and moral authority of President Eanes increases. He can claim to be the only factor of political stability and it could be argued that the fact he was elected with more votes than the Democratic Alliance won in the October 1980 general elections gives him greater political legitimacy than the government.
That is certainly the view taken by the Portuguese Communist Party, which is desperately seeking to cling to General Eanes' coattails, not because he is a potential Communist but because he is the best bet against the government.
How much, however, does President Eanes owe his position, some Portuguese observers ask, to the fact that he has so far refused to descend into the political circus? Would he fare any differently from the other Portuguese political leaders who looked so appealing in opposition, but who failed the test of governing?
As President he has the support of voters from all sides of the political spectrum, but what kind of political program could he put together for a party that would have to unite pro-Soviet Communists and die-hard rightists?
If General Eanes did step down and come back as prime minister, the inevitable comparison would not be with a de Gaulle, but with Portugal's last military strong man, Sidonio Pais. Less than a year after he was elected President, Sidonio Pais was assassinated and the regime he set up collapsed. It was followed by chaos that produced Europe's longest-surviving dictatorship.