In most Western European countries, summer is a traditional time for pause and reflection by politicians who spend most of the year at each other's throats. But in Portugal, hot political summers involving government upheavals and party clashes have become a familiar way of life.
This summer proved to be no exception. Allegations that Portuguese Prime Minister Francisco Sa Carneiro has been involved in financial misconduct have set Portugal's tough-talking center-right government on a collision course with the equally tough-talking Communist Party. That the temperature of Portuguese politics should rise even further in the preliminaries to the Oct. 5 general election was not unexpected. What has taken analysts here by surprise is the crude manner in which the political upsurge has taken place.
The current clash stems from a series of front-page stories that have been appearing in the Communist newspaper, O Diario. Reproducing what it claims as "documented evidence," O Diario has accused the prime minister of having exploited the confusion surrounding the 1974 revolution to "launder" debts worth over $600,000.
O Diario, however, is not a widely read newspaper outside the strict circle of the Communist Party, and neither television, radio, nor any of the major newspapers picked up the story. The prime minister for his part appeared content to keep it that way, refusing to be drawn into public controversy over the allegations.
His lawyers were instructed to institute libel proceedings against O Diario. But this was done discreetly and in the knowledge that Portuguese courts are closed for the summer until October. The legal aspects of the case therefore are not scheduled to surface until after the general election.
It was only when Portugal's major opposition party, the Socialists, jumped on the Communist bandwagon that the "Carneirogate affair" (the name coined by O Diario) took on another dimension. speaking in a press conference Aug. 12, Socialist Party leader Mario Soares described the prime minister's alleged misconduct as an affront against democracy. He also demanded a full parliamentary inquiry and the immediate resignation of the government.
Soare's statements gained widespread publicity, and within 24 hours the Cabinet had met in emergency session to discuss the mounting controversy.
On Aug. 14 Prime Minister Carneiro appeared on nationwide television and strenuously denied that he owed anything to the banking system. He also used the occasion to carry out his strongest attack to date on the Communist Party, accusing it of "personal slander" and of trying to bring down the government by "illegal means."
The Communist Party has since announced that it remains unconvinced by Carneiro's denials. It has accused the government of a "cover-up" and pressed for a detailed account of the prime minister's banking activities, something which was absent from the Aug. 14 TV broadcast.
The government, far from lying now, appears to want to take the battle to its ultimate consequences. In Lisbon, it is widely believed that the timing of the expulsion Aug. 20 of four leading Soviet diplomats for alleged spying is subtly linked to the "Carneirogate" affair.
The official government statement justified the expulsion on the grounds that the soviets "had intruded into Portugal's domestic policies." Privately, government officials are being more elaborate and are preparing to exploit the expulsion move for the election.
On Aug. 12 the pro-government newspaper Tempo carried a front-page report claiming that at least two of the expelled diplomats had been working for the KGB (Soviet secret police). The Soviet officials were also accused of having had close links with the Portuguese Communist Party.
Critics of the government, however, are claiming that it announced the expulsion order either to draw public attention away from the Carneirogate affair or to emphasize the prime minister's theory that the Communist Party is "plotting" against the government.