The Portuguese usually are a stoic people, calm and collected. But on Sunday evening as it became clear that Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva was winning an unprecedented victory, they went berserk. Drivers honked horns. Passengers leaned out of their cars, shouting. Their numbing chant, ``Cavaco, Cavaco,'' sounded like cheers for a game-winning home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series.
``I've never seen such a mob in Portugal,'' said Jaime Nogueira Pinto, a political scientist at the University of Lisbon. ``No one expected this. It's almost too incredible to believe.'' (Cavaco Silva is the Margaret Thatcher of Portugal. Profile, Page 14.)
Since overthrowing a right-wing dictatorship in 1974, Portugal has gone through 16 coalition governments. Now for the first time, a prime minister owns a parliamentary majority and will rule comfortably for four years.
Dr. Cavaco Silva's social democrats produced this strong government by obtaining a massive voter shift. With almost all ballots counted, they won a full 20 percent more than in 1985. That gave them around 50 percent - enough for a clear majority under Portugal's weighted voting system - and more than 25 percent more than the runner-up socialists.
The landslide victory stems from a deep desire for stability. Portugal joined the European Community last year, and it wants to catch up to its richer European partners. In interview after interview, people of all political persuasions insisted that they want to end political haggling.
``The only issue in the campaign was how to avoid Italian-like instability,'' says Manuel Cunha Lima, leader of the apolitical Young Entrepreneurs Association. ``For us to develop our country, we need a strong leader like Cavaco Silva.''
Portugal's allies agreed. Only a decade ago, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger worried that the country was going communist. Following the election, Western diplomats saluted Portugal as a much surer outpost on the southern Mediterranean than either Spain or Greece. If American troops finally are forced to withdraw from outside Madrid, there's talk of moving them here.
``The Portuguese want to feel that they are important to the alliance,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Washington only wants a stable, strong Portuguese government that can get things done and modernize the country.''
Cavaco Silva's majority should be large enough to do just that.
Talks are under way to change the country's Marxist-flavored Constitution, which comes up for review in October. A two-thirds majority in parliament is needed to pass amendments, and together with the socialists, who favor change, Cavaco Silva should have the necessary votes. Once the changes are agreed on, they will enable the gradual reprivatization of the banks, insurance companies, chemical firms, steel foundries, shipyards, breweries, and other firms nationalized in 1975.
Along with producing the basis for dramatic economic changes, the results represented a victory for democracy. The country's strong communist party, considered one the most Stalinist in the world, suffered a ringing defeat. It fell from nearly 16 percent of the vote to around 11 percent.
At the same time, the socialists confirmed their position as the main party of the left. Socialist leaders did not sound too upset by the defeat. With the communists in decline, they said they can use the next four years in opposition to chip away more of its working-class support.
If they succeed, Portugal could look more and more like an American-style democracy with two large, moderate parties competing for power. Both the socialists and the social democrats agree on the basics: NATO membership and a market-oriented economy.
``No one will stop Portugal now,'' Cavaco Silva said in his victory speech. ``This was a victory of political stability.''