Portugal Election Could Spell A Return to Socialist Roots

TWENTY-TWO years after a military coup toppled Western Europe's longest-standing modern dictatorship, Portuguese voters are expected to usher in a new era Sunday with the election of their fourth president.

The new leader will replace veteran Socialist Mario Soares, who is stepping down after 10 years in office.

Jorge Sampaio, a Socialist and former mayor of Lisbon, is widely expected to defeat Anibal Cavaco Silva, a former premier of the Social Democratic Party.

The election represents several turning points: The bowing out of the popular Mr. Soares signals an end to his flamboyant style of presidency. It means that for the first time the country will have both president and legislature from the same Socialist Party. And it represents a renewal of commitment by one of Europe's poorest countries to more liberal, democratic principles after 10 years of experimenting with conservative, technocratic governments.

During that decade, the government veered steadily rightward under Mr. Cavaco Silva, an economist. His hard-edged style is said to be one reason why his Social Democrats were resoundingly defeated in parliamentary elections last October by the Socialists.

''I think [Mr.] Sampaio will win because there's a feeling that we need to regenerate an active participation in citizenship,'' says Manuel Vallaverde Cabral, a sociologist at the Institute of Social Sciences at Lisbon University.

''Democracy is firmly implanted here, but ... under the Cavaco Silva government, there has been a tendency to concentrate power in the executive,'' he adds. ''There has been an impoverishment of democratic institutions, a distancing of them from the people.''

The election could be close. Early in the campaign, Sampaio led his opponent in the polls by 16 percent. But a week ago this difference narrowed to less than 4 percent as the Cavaco Silva campaign gained momentum in the conservative north.

The only two other candidates, from the Portuguese Communist Party and the Popular Democratic Union, withdrew from the race this week, directing their supporters to vote for Sampaio. A late bid by Cavaco Silva to convince the rightist Christian Democratic Center-Popular Party (CDS-PP) to vote for him has failed.

The CDS-PP is an increasingly influential force in Portugal, having won 9 percent of the vote in last October's elections. On Tuesday, leader Manuel Monteiro quashed rumors that he would support the former premier by declaring a policy of strict neutrality.

''I'm not of the left ... but I'm not an opportunist either,'' he asserted. He recommended that party members go to the polling booths but submit a blank ballot, saying that neither candidate was worth supporting.

These moves have consolidated Sampaio's campaign, despite Cavaco Silva's improved position. ''I think he [Sampaio] will win with a comfortable 4 or 5 percent,'' Mr. Villaverde Cabral predicted.

Sampaio was secretary of state for cooperation in one of the first post-revolutionary governments of 1975. He has been mayor of Lisbon since the Socialists won local elections in 1989, working with a coalition of Socialists and Communists. He put order into a chaotic situation left by his Christian Democrat predecessor, Nuno Krus Abecassis. During his six years in office he has introduced cultural projects, restored historic buildings, and rehoused shanty dwellers in government housing.

Whereas outgoing President Soares was a founder of the Portuguese Socialist Party in 1973, Sampaio was a late joiner, having first dabbled with more radical left-wing groups.

His main early political contribution was as a student leader at Lisbon University in the 1962 strike that shook the foundations of the Portuguese dictatorship six years before the Paris students took to the streets, and which cost him time in the notorious Caxias prison.

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