White water ahead for Portugal's new center-left alliance

Portugal's new government faces a daunting array of challenges. Some commentators even see the Socialist-Social Democratic coalition led by Mario Soares as providing possibly the last opportunity for making the present political system work.

Since the military coup which ended decades of dictatorship in 1974, the system of power-sharing between the president and parliament has produced a series of revolving-door governments with an average life span of only 7.5 months - and a notable failure to tackle fundamental economic and social problems.

Today, the accumulating crisis is rapidly approaching breaking point. Portugal's foreign debt stands at about $13.5 billion, or about 55 percent of the gross national product, while the balance of payments deficit of $3.3 billion represents 14 percent of GNP. Inflation is running at over 20 percent.

The country needs relatively large sums of new financing to meet its short-term commitments, and there has been some reluctance by international banks to lend money, despite a comforting 688-ton gold reserve stacked in Lisbon's central bank vaults.

Socialist Prime Minister Soares, a genial man who has twice before held the post, warned bluntly when he took office that no one should expect miracles. His government, he said, would launch immediately into an 18-month emergency economic program to reduce the external debt and dish up measures that will be painful and unpleasant for all.

The gravity of the government's task is difficult enough, but it would be considerably eased if the Prime Minister were able to depend on a sense of national responsibility and collective solidarity from parliamentary deputies both in and out of office.

But such conditions have never existed in Portugal's 250-member parliament. Critics describe the men stalking Lisbon's corridors of power as self-seeking and small-minded, and they maintain that as a result the reigning coalition is as doomed as any of its forerunners. Only the timing of the demise is unknown. But already, they say, there are signs the practiced adepts are up to the kind of conspiratorial tricks that have sunk so many of the previous governments.

If indeed parliament fails to meet the electorate's expectations and fulfill the bloated promises of the 1974 revolution, few should be surprised if the popular tide swings in favor of alternatives.

For the moment, the logical swing is toward the popularly elected President, Army Gen. Antonio Ramalho Eanes, whose national standing has increased in direct proportion to the parliamentarians' fall from popularity.

But Eanes is a reluctant hero who regularly declines to be pushed into any course of action likely to endanger the present power-sharing status quo.

Equally, there are strong forces in the parliamentary arena bent on curbing the emergence of presidential tendencies. But the fight strikes many observers as something of a bullfighting feint.

Portugal's turbulent political system seems destined to evolve toward an executive-style presidency. The twist is that the present political leaders are only likely to countenance such a change when civilian rather than military candidates are lined up for the nomination. Constitutionally, this next happens in 1985 when Mario Soares is widely expected to be the leading presidential contender.

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