Portugal's ruling Democratic Alliance losing ground as election nears

Portugal's ruling center-right coalition could lose its parliamentary majority in the Oct. 5 general election and plunge the country again into a period of considerable political uncertainty. Such an outcome would have never been foreseen 10 months ago when the Democratic Alliance, led by fiery Oporto lawyer Francisco Sa Carneiro, was swept to victory in one of the most dramatic electoral turnarounds in recent history.

Just six years after a revolution overturned half a century of right-wing dictatorship and at the end of a long period of socialist-inspired government, the Portuguese decided it was time for change and endorsed the pragmatic conservatism offered by the alliance.

The right wing won 42.2 percent of the vote and left Portugal's major opposition party, the Socialists, in shambles. Their share of the vote was 27 percent, a decline of almost 8 percent, in contrast to the Communist Party, which improved its share of the vote by 4 percent for a Communist total of almost 19 percent.

Public opinion polls are, by Portuguese law, unpublishable once the election campaign has begun. But surveys taken by the leading parties over the past few days indicate that there is a small but significant swing away from the alliance and back toward the Socialists. At the same time, support for the Communist Party is showing signs of declining. But not even the most optimistic pollsters predict that the Socialists will increase their vote sufficiently to achieve a majority. Thus the prospect is a hung parliament.

During the campaign the ruling alliance has presented itself as the most efficient government since the revolution. It has claimed "successes" on the economic and social front, and excused its shortcomings by declaring that none could have done more in the 10 months' period permitted by the Constitution. According to the text, a full four-year legislative term could only begin after a general election in October.

The government has pointed to the reduction of inflation from 24 percent to 19 percent, its lowering of the income tax, its raising of pensions and minimum salaries, and a long list of measures aimed at boosting the confidence of the private sector. The most important of these has been the compensation of shares nationalized following the revolution and the introduction of fiscal and tax incentives for the investor.

The Republican and Socialist Front (FRS) led by the Socialist Party have conducted an energetic and well-organized campaign. The FRS has had huge rallies, impressive fire-works displays, and well-conceived television campaign broadcasts. They have also been aggressive with their personal attacks on Prime Minister Sa Carneiro -- using his alleged irregular bank dealings and his relationship with a Danish woman, who he lives with the while still legally married to the Portuguese mother of his five children, as a vote-catching issue for the working and Roman Catholic vote.

They have also challenged, the government's claim that the standard of living of the poorer classes has improved during the past 10 months.

"The housewife is not fooled by consumer price indexes. She knows for sure that some individual prices in her shopping basket have gone up by as much as 30 percent since December and that the government has done nothing about it," said Isabel Soares, the 28 year-old daughter of Socialist Party leader Mario Soares.

While boasting of its own performance in government, the Democratic Alliance has also provided its share of mudslinging during the campaign. In an attempt to win back the vote in the traditionally church-going north of Portugal, alliance candidates have accused Mr. Soares of being the son of a defrocked priest and his party executive of being a band of contrabandists. But easily the most consistent attack has been that of Sa Carneiro on President Eanes.

From the first day of the campaign, the Prime Minister has made every effort to tarnish General Eanes' political image, accusing him being hopelessly inefficient as well as a veiled communist.

Portugal's presidential elections are due in December and Prime Minister Sa Carneiro claims that non-Socialist government in Portugal will be impossible as long as President Eanes is at the helm. The prime minister has linked his own political future to the presidential issue by declaring that he will resign if President Eanes is relected.

The last opinion conducted by Sa Carneiro's own party on the presidential elections showed General Eanes still to be widely popular. Of those questioned, 57 percent said they would vote for him against 12 percent who said they favored the government's candidate, Gen. Antonio Soares Carneiro.

The tense relationship between prime minister and president begs the question as to whether Portugal will face a crisis if the alliance loses its majority. The political future of Portugal will be stormy even if the Democratic Alliance wins.

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