Portugal's military leaves nation's political crisis to the politicians

Whenever the political temperature rises in Portugal, the people anxiously look for how the military will react. It is a habit that comes naturally in a country where the military took power in their own hands seven years ago to overthrow an outmoded dictatorship.

In a regime that traces its origins to a coup, however bloodless, the military's reaction to the latest political crisis was not slow in coming.

Faced with the spectacle of a government based on the clearest parliamentary majority since the 1974 revolution, disintegrating under the pressure of its own discontent supporters rather than the almost nonexistent opposition of its political enemies, the military decided it was time to teach the civilians a few lessons about democracy.

the occasion they chose was charged with symbolism. The cream of the Portuguese armed forces gathered in an artillery barracks opposite Lisbon's airport to celebrate Army Day with pomp and circumstance. Just six years ago, the same barracks, known as Ralis, was run by a soviet of officers and troopers and black-masked soldiers who harangued crowds of left-wing supporters from its walls at almost-nightly rallies.

Addressing rows of smart white-gloved troops, President Antonio Ramalho Eanes publicly buried the last fears of military interference in politics. He said that now that democracy was working, there was no more excuse for the Army or any group of military to try to establish themselves as the sole interpreters of the Portuguese people's will.

With perhaps more than one glance over his shoulder at Spain, where the Army is daily less hesitant to flex its political muscles, the Portuguese President announced "the end of the classical bogey of military intervention in political life."

And if there are political problems, there is always the possibility of resorting to fresh elections to solve them, the general said, neatly washing the military's hands of any responsibility for sorting out the growing internal conflict hampering Portugal's ruling Democratic Alliance.

It was a declaration of faith in ballot-box democracy utterly in line with President Eanes's political principles and his decision to give up direct command of the armed forces following his reelection for a new five- year term last December.

But the Portuguese military have not remained immune to the rightist unrest in the Spanish armed forces, and the July 25 Army Day celebrations provided a sober reminder to the politicians that they should not be too smug about the Army returning to barracks.

The reminder was given by the Army chief of staff, Gen. Amadeu Garcia dos Santos, who complained about the military considering a deliberate campaign to resurrect their great taboo -- the dirty side of the long war in Africa that ended with the breakup of Lisbon's colonial empire after the 1974 revolution.

It was striking that the reminder came from a general who is a political nominee of President Eanes rather than the typical conservative career officer. The fact that General dos Santos made such a hard-line statement is in itself an indication of how high feeling is running in the Army over the issue.

"Unfortunately there seem to be sectors that are really interested in provoking instability and unrest in the armed forces. We have been watching a systematic aggression against the armed forces that has led to a questioning of their existence, their mission, their cost, and even their history," General dos Santos said before asking politicians to weigh the consequences of such attacks.

The phrasing made it clear the Army considered the biggest taboo of all to be its past. The implication has always been that discussion of what went on in Africa would open a veritable Pandora's box of tr oubles.

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