By electing veteran Socialist M'ario Soares as president, Portuguese voters have resisted a strong appeal to turn right, 12 years after a left-wing revolution. Dr. Soares narrowly defeated Diogo Freitas do Amaral, a Christian Democrat, in a second and final round of voting Sunday. Soares will succeed President Ant'onio Ramalho Eanes, who must retire after serving the maximum of two five-year terms.
The candidacy of Prof. Freitas do Amaral, who was an ally of Prime Minister Marcelo Caetano in the twilight days of the Portuguese dictatorship, raised the concern that the nation might see a return to a rightist government.
Soares will be Portugal's first civilian president in 60 years. As jubilant Socialists celebrated in the streets, he said his election marked the beginning of a new era in Portuguese political life.
``Twelve years after the revolution, the phase of transitional democracy has ended and the way opened for a fully-fledged democracy, which is the only true source of political legitimacy,'' he told reporters.
He won with 51 percent of the vote, against Freitas do Amaral's 49 percent.
When campaigning began in January, Soares was considered a rank outsider. He had suffered a staggering defeat in parliamentary elections in October: He lost power as prime minister and his party polled its lowest return since the 1974 revolution, with a mere 21 percent of the vote. The centrist Social Democratic Party, which supported the Freitas do Amaral campaign, was elected, as a minority government, under young economist Anibal Cavaco Silva.
The president has the power to dismiss a government if it is judged to have lost the confidence of parliament. During his campaign, however, Soares promised he would support the continuation of the minority Cavaco Silva government.
But that government is nevertheless considered fragile as a result of Sunday's election. Even if the left-wing parties are not tempted by the Soares victory to try to bring down the Socialist government, the government itself could refuse to continue if it loses any important test in the near future. Such a test could arise with a proposed bill to liberalize labor laws. The bill is central to conservative aspirations and opposed by the unions.
The election-weary Portuguese are already braced for a new round of parliamentary elections to equalize the power change brought by the left-wing presidential victory.
Soares's victory crowns a long political career. As a young lawyer in the time of the dictatorship of Ant'onio de Oliveira Salazar, Soares earned a reputation as a champion of democratic rights, defending political prisoners and suffering imprisonment and exile as a result. After the revolution, he led the Socialist Party through difficult times to become a major political force, against opposition from the Communist Party, which was allied with left-wing military officers.
Soares has earned bitter criticism from the left for his pro-American foreign policy -- he is considered the most conservative socialist leader in Western Europe -- and for his tough economic policies, dictated by the International Monetary Fund.