Portugal's growing democracy

AT a time when political freedom is under challenge -- as is now occurring in the Philippines, South Korea, and other parts of the world -- it is useful to be reminded that nations can make progress in overcoming a less than promising and often tyrannical past. Case in point: Portugal. This week, voters in that nation of 10 million people flocked to the polls to select a new president, the first civilian president in Portugal in 60 years. The winner, M'ario Soares, a former three-term Socialist prime minister, scored a narrow victory over a right-wing challenger.

On one level, the presidential election represents a personal achievement for Mr. Soares. In last October's general elections, Soares's moderate left-of-center coalition government, which he had headed as prime minister, was ousted in a crushing defeat by a right-of-center government, headed by Anibal Cavaco Silva, the current prime minister. The Cavaco Silva government, which holds office by a minority, had backed the conservative candidate running against Soares in this week's runoff presidential contest.

In addition to the personal victory for Soares, this week's presidential election represents an achievement of sorts for Portugal, which throughout much of this century has been under the heel of authoritarian rule, most notably that of Ant'onio Oliveira Salazar. The Salazar dictatorship fell in 1974, only to be followed by brief military rule and then an attempt by communists to wrest dominance of the government. Soares helped thwart a communist-backed coup and went on to be elected the first constitutionally elected prime minister after the 1974 revolution. He has become the dominant figure on the Portuguese political stage.

It would be a mistake to gloss over Portugal's current political and economic problems. They are substantial, and will require the cooperation of all segments of Portuguese society if they are to be met.

Politically, Portugal's parliamentary system, based on proportional representation, has fostered a splintering of political parties representing a broad range of often irreconcilable interests and leading to a climate of political instability. Nor is there much kindred goodwill between Soares, Portugal's new President-elect, and the current center-right government. Economically, Portugal continues to be the problem child of Europe, with high inflation and unemployment, low capital development, and a large agricultural sector that is too often far less productive than its European counterparts.

Indeed, Portugal's new membership in the European Common Market this year, along with that of neighboring Spain, will mean additional industrial and economic competition for Portugal; the other side of the coin is that Portugal will receive new economic assistance as well as loans because of its membership.

Challenges aside -- and they are admittedly difficult -- Portugal's growing political maturity warrants the appreciation and encouragement of the global community.

Democracy is a fragile flower that seldom blooms overnight. What the people of Portugal are now seeking to prove is that, given time -- and support -- it can put down deep roots and blossom.

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