When Portugal's Francisco Sa Carneiro swept his center-right Democratic Alliance to power last December, he promised nothing short of radical change. "The Portuguese electorate has not only voted for a model of government but also for a model of society," he said.
His election manifesto had pledged a rollback of many of the political and economic changes that had taken place in the six years of socialist rule since the 1974 revolution, and had pledged to open up key sectors of the economy to the private sector. He also promised a gradual revision of the country's socialist constitution and a disbandment of the military Council of the Revolution.
At the same time, the government would push ahead with the controversial agrarian-reform law in the south which involves returning collectivized land to private ownership.
But last week, less than two months after taking office, Dr. Sa Carneiro began to count the costs of going too fast too soon.
Inside parliament the opposition parties, the Socialists and the Communists, announced that the honeymoon was over and presented separate censure motions against the government. Outside, the Intersindical, Portugal's Communist-dominated main trade-union movement, declared a national transport strike. But the most serious trouble came in the form of renewed saber-rattling from the military. According to a report in a leading right-wing newspaper, a group of left-wing officers and members of the Council of the Revolution had plans to oust Dr. Sa Carneiro and remove the country's three conservative chiefs of staff. The move had been approved by President Antonio Ramalho Eanes. The report was immediately denied by the military officers involved, and observers here see no reason to doubt them.
One intelligence source in Lisbon said, "The story doesn't make sense. The officers are intellectuals wihtout any real influence in the barracks.They can't begin to think about a coup."
President Eanes, moreover, is looked upon, even by his sworn enemies, as a democrat committed to keeping the military out of politics.
But in the glass-bowl atmosphere of Portuguese politics, whether a rumor is true or false is irrelevant. What matters is that it exists.
When the rumor happens to involve the government, the President, and the armed forces, it has all the elements of a crisis.
Thus, what began as a speculative and poorly sourced front-page story has snowballed to such an extent that the government, the President, and the Council of the Revolution now appear to be locked in serious confrontation.
Far form playing down the "coup" rumors, government officials appear to have the intention of giving implicit credence to them. In a strongly worded speech to parliament, Dr. Sa Carneiro accused members of the Council of the Revolution and leaders of the opposition of involving themselves in destabilizing maneuvers.
"They seem to be incapable of accepting that the majority of Portuguese voted for us last December," the Prime Minister said. He then delivered a strong attack against the President, claiming that General Eanes did not support his government.
Mr. Eanes himself issued a six-page statement criticizing the irresponsibility of the progovernment newspapers and describing the false "rumors" as the "most serious political manipulation of public opinion since parliamentary democracy was institutionalized in Portugal in 1976."
Privately, government officials and the President's men are being somewhat more blunt. They are accusing each other of having orchestrated the "coup" simply to further their own political ambitions.
Portugal is facing a presidential election in 1981, and all the political parties, including those in the ruling coalition, are looking around for candidates. But last week's events suggest that at least two individuals have already thrown in the gauntlet: General Eanes, who is yet to announce publicly whether he wishes to stand for re-election, and Dr. Sa Carneiro, who is rapidly emerging as the only alternative.