Portugal's Socialists want partners to share blame for recession

The economy seems set to sink Portugal's 15th government in the past 10 years - just when key indicators were looking promising. A coalition led by the Socialist Party and including the center-right Social Democrats has ruled Portugal since June last year with one of the largest parliamentary majorities the country has ever seen. The coalition needed the majority to deal with one of the gravest economic crises the nation has ever experienced.

When the government, headed by Socialist Prime Minister Mario Soares, took office, it ordered belts tightened. It clamped down with a fiscal ferocity that set the economy into a sharp recession and brought nods of approval from policy policers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Within 12 months there had been an impressive turnaround in Portugal's external accounts. The foreign trade deficit was slashed to $850 million, considerably below the IMF target of $1.25 billion. Other key indicators are also looking promising.

But the government's critics say the apparent miracles have been achieved at great social cost. Worker organizations complain that unemployment now stands at 12 percent, purchasing power has dropped 10 percent, inflation hovers at 27 percent, and more than 100,000 private- and public-sector employees have wages or benefits in arrears.

Prime Minister Soares had virtually promised as much when he came to power. He warned the voters that he had inherited an almost bankrupt country and righting it would be unpleasant for at least 15 months.

All would have been fine if a government-commissioned public opinion poll this month hadn't shown the Socialists losing ground to the Social Democrats and taking the brunt of the blame for the austerity affecting everyones lives.

For Soares, who hopes to be a candidate in presidential elections at the end of 1985 and who needs a strong Socialist Party to help him win, the polls were a body blow.

The Socialists swung angrily on their erstwhile partners, demanding an end to continual public criticism of the government by the Social Democrats and a renewed commitment to the economic recovery program with all its negative effects.

The idea was to demonstrate unequivocally that the Social Democrats had an equal responsibility for the sufferings of the voters, thus spreading the political costs to both parties.

But the Social Democrats have a reputation for maverick behavior - and, as one political commentator remarked, ''a complete lack of internal party discipline.'' Bringing them to heel could prove very difficult.

The resulting crisis is one nobody wants - especially since it coincides with a critical moment in complex negotiations for Portugal's entry to the European Community.

If the government fails to hold together, it will also set back long-planned and urgently needed measures to rescale burdensome public enterprises whose accumulated debts and huge labor forces are financially crippling the country and hindering a true economic recovery.

Diplomats are watching developments with some concern. At this juncture, political stability is considered to be of the utmost importance. The feeling is shared in the prime minister's office where officials said this week that Soares was deeply worried about the gravity of the economic situation and would not lightly abandon his post despite the coalition's difficulties.

If the crisis is not managed with considerable care and political skill, months of public sacrifice and financial woes will be for naught, leading economists warned this week.

Indeed some politicians are raising questions about the very fabric of the 10 -year-old Portuguese democracy and wondering aloud whether the present system of sharing power between parliament and the president has not been exhausted.

Lining up in the wings is a new, as yet unamed party pushing firmly for a French-style presidential system and hoping to draw support from disenchanted voters within the Socialist and Social Democratic parties.

They hope to be led by the current President, Antonio Ramalho Eanes when his five-year term expires at the end of 1985.

The only drawback is that President Eanes is constitutionally barred from a third term as president and his electoral support out of office is untested.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.