Government that nobody wanted to join

Portugal is a country where, as the conservative Lisbon daily O Dia put it, the people are waiting on their knees for someone so kind as to come and govern them.

For the last four weeks, the search has been on for someone to succeed Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao, who resigned last month after two years in office.

With the economy in deep crisis and a looming debt problem, no one has been too keen to take on the job.

At one point, the right-wing weekly Tempo published a cartoon showing a Portuguese unemployment office where the only job offered was that of prime minister. Although 9 percent of the work force is out of a job, the only person in the queue was Steven Spielberg's E.T.

Portugal has had many government crises since tanks restored democracy in a coup in April 1974, but there has never been one as strange as this.

The crisis is all the more puzzling because there was no political reason for Mr. Balsemao to resign.

Furthermore, the right-wing coalition that has ruled Portugal for the last three years has a comfortable majority in Parliament and does not need to face general elections until 1984.

As if this was not enough to ensure political stability, the crisis silenced the coalition's most serious opponent.

President Antonio Ramalho Eanes, realizing that early general elections at this stage would spell ruin for the economy, offered an unusual truce to his right-wing foes. He summoned the three squabbling right-wing parties - Social Democrats, Monarchists, and Christian Democrats - and promised that as long as they could form a new government to deal with Portugal's economic mess, he would cooperate.

Instead, the parties have been tearing one another and themselves to pieces.

Vitor Pereira Crespo, a US-trained chemistry professor, finally accepted the thankless task of forming a new government. After much squabbling, the three parties reached basic agreement Jan. 11 on a new coalition government to be led by him. But Mr. Crespo still has to overcome many obstacles before becoming prime minister.

So far only second-rate politicians have agreed to join the government of the professor, who is himself very much a backroom boy in the Social Democratic Party.

Such was the lack of enthusiasm for Cabinet honors that at one point the Social Democratic Party seriously considered the possibility of making it mandatory for party members in the civil service to join the government if invited.

The biggest casualty of the crisis is the economy. At the moment, Portugal has no budget. That means that Portugal cannot seek any sovereign loans abroad or raise any new taxes at home.

Should general elections be called at this stage, the soonest Portugal could hope to have its 1983 budget is June. Only then could it apply for a badly needed loan from the International Monetary Fund to finance its growing balance-of-payments deficits.

The most that Portuguese politicians are hoping for is that the right-wing alliance will form a stopgap cabinet to deal with the immediate problems of the economy.

Then the alliance could be allowed to collapse, leaving the country to prepare for more elections at the end of 1983. It is unlikely that the electorate, which gave the alliance 42 percent of the votes in midterm elections as recently as Dec. 12, will easily forgive the right-wing leaders for giving up at such a testing time.

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