Portugal's new electoral alliance

"A triumph for those who want to see a spirit of consensus reestablished in Portugal," glowed Socialist Party leader Mario Soares. "The Socialist Party has neither its own language nor its own ideology," scoffed Prime Minister Francisco Sa Carneiro.

They were commenting on the launching of a new electoral alliance, the Republic and Socialist Front (FRS), Mr. Soare's boldest attempt so far to overcome his party's crushing defeat last December and to present a viable center-left alternative to the ruling center-right Democratic Alliance (AD).

Mr. Soares claims that the FRS is the only hope for Portugal. He feels Portuguese society is becoming dangerously polarized between the ruling AD on the right and the orthodox Communist Party on the left.

The Sa Carneiro view is that the FRS is nothing more than an awkward extension of the Socialist Party's internal contractions.

That there is sufficient evidence to support both opinions underlines the complex nature of Portuguese politics, still as fluid and unpredictable as at any other stage since the 1974 revolution.

When Mr. Sa Carneiro swept his alliance to power last December, he promised nothing less than radical change: His election manifesto pledged a rollback of many of the political and economic changes that have taken place in the six years of Socialist rule since the 1974 revolution.

But during its first six months in office the government has had to count the costs of going too fast too soon. Its relations with President Antonio Ramalho Eanes, with the Military Council of the Revolution, with the opposition parties, and with the Communist-dominated trade unions have been stretched to the limit.

Mr. Sa Carneiro's Thatcherite determination to push ahead with key points of his program has provoked a presidential veto, a reported military plot, two censure motions in parliament, and a prolonged bout of industtrial disputes. All this has undermined the government's preferred image of itself as a force for stability and consensus.

Mr. Soares faces an uphill task in proving to the increasingly speptical Portuguese that his electoral front is everything that the government is not.

At a glance the FRS, with its emphasis on dialogue and national reconciliation, seems an attractive proposition to a country that has been torn by extremes throughout most of its history. But a closer look at the FRS's composition and aims leaves one with a nagging sense of "deja vu."

The front's manifesto is a faithful reflection of the socialist Party's previous election program; on the economy it commits itself to strengthening the public sector. But it makes no reference to further nationalizations. Instead it commits itself to supporting the private sector. In other words, it favors a mixed-market economy within the context of Portugal's future membership of the European Community.

Politically the front accepts that Portugal's Marxist-oriented Constitution should be revised and that the Council of the Revolution should be disbanded.

The manifesto is Social Democratic rather than socialist in the strictly Marxist sense, and it confirms the pragmatic middle-ground strategy pursued by Mr. Soares since he emerged triumphant from an internal party crisis last March.

This moderation is reflected by the presence within the FRS of a group of independent Social Democrats who broke away from their own party after accusing Mr. Sa Carneiro of taking it too far to the right.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.