The demise of Prime Minister Francisco Sa Carneiro in an plane crash Dec. 4 has struck Portugal like the disappearance of a magician halfway through a conjuring act.
His assitants saw him pull his trick off thousands of times but none of them knows how to complete the act in his absence. Even to the ministers of his government, Mr. Sa Carneiro was knwon as a political gambler. His removal from the scene has made the Portuguese realize what a risk they took in putting their destiny in the hands of a conjurer, no matter how many spectacular tricks he manged to pull off before disappearing.
He could not have left the political stage at a worse time. The particular conjuring act he left unfinished was the political crisis he had manufactured to get his right-wing candidate elected in Portugal's Dec. 7 presidential elections and defeat President Antonio Ramalho Eanes. The late premier had threatened to resign if his candidate, Gen Antonio Soares Carneiro (no realtion) was not elected. It was a subtle form of blackmail.
The Democratic Alliance was Mr. Sa Carneiro's personal creation and he knew that, without him, it woudl collapse. So did the electorate and the late premier's threat was, therefore, a powerful argument to convince reluctant Alliance voters to cast their ballot for General Soares Carneiro.
Suddenly, an plane crash fulfilled Mr. Sa Carneiro's threat. To make a matters worse, he had made President Eanes out to be a communist stooge. He knew it was not true and that General Eanes had received the communists' support only because he was the lesser tof two evils for the pro-Moscow party. But playing on the anticommunism of the majority of voters, particularly in the extremely Catholic north, is always a useful political trick in Portugal.
The communists had been steadily losing influence for the last four years. The October general elections showed they were also losing votes. Mr. Sa Carneiro's tactics were a blessing in disguise for them. His strategy suddenly gave the Communist Party a chance to bid for a share of powr again. Should General Eanes win, they will now be able to claim that the country has swung back to the left and has rejected Mr. Sa Carneiro's political vision.
If re-elected, the President will be able to claim that it was due to a unique combination of Alliance, Socialist, Communist votes, giving him a mandate to fill the power vacuum left by the premier's death.
If a wave of sentimentalism pushes the Democratic Alliance voters to return General Soares Carneiro to power as a final gesture of loyalty to the late premier, the right's problems are not over. Even members of the right-wing government are now looking at General Soares Carneiro as some sort of puppet without his puppet-master. No one knows his political plans. He was not meant to have any. All his ideas were supposed to be provided by the late premier.
The picture emerging is that whoever wins the presidential elections, bitter infighting among right-wing leaders will strain the Alliance to breaking point. This will surely have implications for both foreign investment, which had been set to pour into the country before Portugal's entry into the European Community , and for the military, who were finally about to return to barracks six years after the revolution.