Mario Soares has been the living image of Portugal's Socialist Party since he founded it at a secret congress in 1973 just before the nation's right-wing dictatorship collapsed.
Now he is sitting on the sidelines in self- imposed exile, and Portugal's biggest opposition party is locked in a bitter leadership struggle.
The man in the corner is part of Portugal's contemporary history. It was Mr. Soares who secured international recognition for Portugal after the 1974 revolution. It was he who negotiated the handover of Portugal's African colonies to the Marxist liberation movements that had turned back the tide of communist influence in Portugal in 1975. And it was he who, in 1976, became the prime minister of Portugal's first democratically elected government in over 50 years.
Mr. Soares says he is staying out of politics until the Dec. 7 Portuguese presidential elections and will not make any public statements. But his supporters are charging that the historic leader of the Portuguese Socialist Party has been stabbed in the back by a group of ambitious rivals and that the party has in fact been hijacked by Portugal's soldier- president, Gen. Antonio Ramalho Eanes and his fans among the Socialists.
Mr. Soares is trying to make the party choose between support for General Eanes and loyalty to himself. An overwhelming majority of the members of the party's governing bodies are insisting the Socialists must go on backing General Eanes in the presidential race, however much Mr. Soares might dislike it, because the only alternative is the right-wing candidate, Gen Antonio Soares Carneiro.
Mr. Soares's critics within the party accuse him of acting like a peevish monarch furious at being contradicted by the parliament that he himself set up.
The storm in the Portuguese Socialist Party follows a humiliating defeat in the Oct. 5 general elections -- the second electoral setback in less than a year -- and coincides with crises in two other major European socialist parties. In Britain, the Labour Party is torn by a former feud over who should lead it following the resignation of former Prime Minister James Callaghan. In France, the Socialists are squaring up for a fight over who should stand as the party's presidential candidate in next year's elections -- its leader, Francois Mitterrand, or the ambitious young Michel Rocard.
The Portuguese Communists, utterly loyal to the Soviet Union, are, meanwhile, rubbing their hands with glee, remembering how the breakup of the Italian Socialist Party in 1952 ended their electoral chances and gave the Communist Party the leadership of the left.
Mr. Soare's Socialist critics realize the party virtually cannot exist without him. In the absence of a coherent ideology, it is the jovial image of this chubby-faced lawyer that keeps the party together. To a large part of the Socialist electorate the party means Soares. On a another level, it is Mr. Soares who, through his family and supporters controls the party's funds. And it is thanks to his longstanding friendship with other European socialist leaders that the Portuguese Socialists are financed by foreign parties.
But his opponents feel now that Mr. Soares has led the Socialists to defeat in two general elections. They say that with the right wing in power for the next four years, the party needs something more than just a charismatic leader. Their plan was to use the party congress in March to give more importance to ideas than personalities and basically turn Mr. Soares into a colorful figurehead.
By provoking a leadership crisis at a crucial time between two elections, Mr. Soares caught his opponents off guard. His hope is that he will be able to anticipate the party congress, put his men in charge of its organization so that his opponents can be quietly purged, allowing him to return in triumph as the undisputed leader -- much as the head of the Spanish Socialist Party, Felipe Gonzalez Marques, dis in 1979.
Mr. Soares has made the present crisis in the party an emotional one rather than a purely political one. He founded the party, loves being in the limelight , and does not like rivals. At the moment, Mr. Soares has the possibility of leading a counterattack to replace his opponents with yes men, but he may lose the chance of giving the Socialists something otherthan a face to offer voters. The choice facing the Portuguese Socialists is in fact whether or not their party will remain the personal property of one man.