Portugal: another triumph for democracy

We recall all the hand-wringing that went on after the overthrow of the old Salazar regime in Portugal six years ago. Some feared the ensuing political struggle would eventually bring the communists to power. The rise of "Eurocommunism" in other West European nations only added to this concern. So it is especially gratifying that the people of Portugal have turned their back on the socialist left and returned to power the ruling conservative Democratic Alliance led by Francisco Sa Carneiro. There is no question the vote in the parliamentary election reflected a public yearning for stability after years of upheaval and uncertainty.

As important as Prime Minister Sa Carneiro's victory -- and the coalition of Social and Center Democrats increased its majority from six to 18 seats -- is the heavy loss suffered by the hard-line communist alliance. It forfeited seven seats and is down now to 40 seats in the 250-member Parliament. Significantly, some of Mr. Sa Carneiro's major gains were in the once communist-dominated agrarian reform belt and in working-class suburbs. This, together with the lack of gains for the socialist opposition, would seem to indicate a decided rejection of the policies pursued in the years of leftist rule. A traditional Portuguese conservatism is reasserting itself on the political scene.

While Mr. Sa Carneiro now has a four-year mandate to govern the country, the future is not yet clear, however. Portugal faces a presidential election in December and it is possible that popular leftist President Antonio Ramalho Eanes will be re-elected. The prime minister has warned he will not stay in power if this happens, but this threat may turn out to be campaign strategy that could give way after the election to some modus vivendi between the two men, however uneasy.

In any case, the prime minister will need the support of the next president in order to carry out his reforms for reversing the socialist course set in motion by the revolution. These would include revising the essentially Marxist Constitution, putting nationalized sectors back into rivate hands, taking the left-wing military out of politics, and aligning Portugal firmly with NATO and the European Community -- reforms which would holster Portuguese democracy and Portugal's role in Western Europe.

One cannot minimize the economic and other problems which beset Portugal today. But, six short years after left-wing officers brought down an autocratic dictatorship, it is remarkable to see a sturdy democratic process of work. The fact that a high 85 to 90 percent of the eligible voters participated in the election bespeaks a commitment to democracy -- and that, after all, is what the revolution was all about. The socialists, we might add, deserve credit for keeping Portugal on an even keel in the difficult postrevolutionary period and enabling parliamentary democracy to take its course.

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