Squabbles strain Portugal's young democracy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For the tenth time since tanks rolled through the streets of Lisbon in 1974 to restore democracy, Portugal's voters are to be called to the polls to sort out the mess left behind by their squabbling politicians.

Dissolving a Parliament halfway through its mandate and calling early general elections are steps that are not taken lightly in a young democracy like Portugal's.

But President Antonio Ramalho Eanes said he had no other choice to end the complicated government crisis caused by the resignation of the right-wing coalition Cabinet last month.

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Many Portuguese agreed, even among those who had voted for the ruling Democratic Alliance, that whatever came next could not possibly be worse than the show the quarreling coalition partners put on during the last five weeks. The coalition could not agree on who would succeed Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao, whose resignation Dec. 19 had sparked the crisis.

No one, except the alliance leaders, was particularly surprised the President turned down the right-wing parties' offer to form another government under an obscure politician named Vitor Pereira Crespo. In a speech to the nation, Eanes said that, given the row over the choice of Mr. Crespo, it seemed unlikely Crespo would have the political backing needed to run the country.

Mr. Balsemao and the other right-wing leaders were, however, predictably indignant and immediately accused the President of destabilizing democracy by intervening to end a crisis they had themselves caused. The alliance does, of course, have quite a lot to feel sorry about. It had a clear majority in Parliament and this gave it a mandate to rule until 1984. All this was thrown away when Mr. Balsemao resigned in what can only be described as a fit of personal pique.

Both the alliance parties have emerged from the latest crisis bruised and deeply split. The Christian Democrats no longer have a leader, and few people are confident Balsemao can hang on as head of the Social Democrats. It is also highly doubtful that the alliance can again present itself as a coalition in the next elections. Even if it does, it will have to pay the price of having talked itself out of office.

If the right-wing parties run against each other in the next elections, they will be penalized because Portugal's voting system favors electoral coalitions. It was precisely because of this that the alliance was founded in 1979.

In any case, the coalition is bound to lose out at the polls. And with no right-wing alternative, Portugal can only shift politically in the other direction. Portugal's Socialists won 32 percent of the votes in December's midterm elections and are the main beneficiaries of the crisis. But no one expects them to be able to rule alone. Portugal is, in fact, condemned to being ruled by coalitions - with the troubles that such partnerships produce.

The most likely result of the elections, which will probably take place in April, is a new coalition grouping the Socialists and the Social Democrats, who are part of the current coalition. This is one of the few political combinations that has not yet had a go at running the country since the 1974 revolution, and it will probably have a large parliamentary majority.

But will it be any more peaceful and effective as an alliance?

At least the right-wing parties now in government had a similar political outlook and inherited a fairly sound economy when they came to power. Whoever has to rule Portugal after the next elections faces the thankless task of redressing an exhausted economy.

Democracy faces many serious problems in Portugal in the months ahead, not least because of the economy. Fortunately, however, the Portuguese electorate has always shown far more sense than the country's politicians.

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