Why Portuguese stumble toward another election

The resignation of Portugal's prime minister has once more proved that stable government is an illusion in this country of 10 million people.

Portugal now seems destined to face yet more elections even though the last thing it needs at this stage in its history is further political uncertainty.

Since a military coup in 1974 helped to restore democracy, the Portuguese have been to the polls nine times in nine years, and have seen 14 governments presiding over an economic decline.

The irony is that the prime minister, Francisco Pinto Balsemao, stepped down just when his government had gotten the Constitution it had so long fought for. The Constitution was needed, the right-wing coalition government said, to carry out the reforms promised when the coalition came to power in 1980.

What makes the Balsemao resignation so worrying is that he gave up because of problems within the Democratic Alliance, the three-party coalition, which has a clear majority in Parliament. Such a majority is a luxury here, but the Portuguese right seems determined to throw away this advantage.

Balsemao's right-of-center Social Democratic Party is at present trying to paper over cracks in the alliance and form a new government. But few in this country believe such an obviously fragile coalition can put together a government strong enough to last long.

The Socialist and Communist opposition parties are clamoring for early general elections. And the dark horse of the right-wing coalition, the Social Democratic Center, seems increasingly ill at ease in the alliance.

It was a midterm local election on Dec. 12 that brought the long-simmering conflict between the CDS and Balsemao's larger PSD out into the open. The alliance dropped only a few percentage points in the national vote, and the right continues to dominate local government in Portugal, but Balsemao felt his allies had betrayed him.

That elections will have to be held soon is accepted by most politicians as inevitable. The date depends on when President Eanes dissolves Parliament - something he has the right to do when he feels the country's democratic institutions are not working properly.

These political upheavals could not have come at a worse time for Portugal, although it is understandable that, given the economic crisis, some parties might want to give up the responsibility of being in government.

Political crises tend to paralyze an economy. Boards of the many public-sector companies tend to be appointed on political grounds, so whenever a government falls, bosses are dismissed and no important decisions can be taken.

This government crisis has come just as the government was about to push a highly unpopular austerity budget through Parliament. Belt-tightening does not win votes, so in an election year no government is likely to take the risk of raising taxes, cutting subsidies, and putting a ceiling on wage hikes.

The economy is not the only casualty of Balsemao's resignation. Portugal had hoped to sign the treaty of accession to the European Community after March 1983 . France has been placing obstacles in the way of the Portuguese application, but if there are general elections in Portugal, the French will not have to worry. The Portuguese politicians will do their work for them.

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