When a left-wing military coup ended nearly half a century of right-wing dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, the social and economic upheaval that followed was most deeply felt in the Alentejo, the country’s vast southern plain. Almost overnight sprawling farms that had been controlled for centuries by rich landowners were turned into state-run co-operatives. And in the parliamentary elections that followed a year later, many of the area’s poor farmworkers showed their support for agrarian reform by voting for Portugal’s pro-Moscow Communist party. Now the winds of change are once again blowing across the Alentejo. Last week, in the midst of a new election, crowds of supporters jammed the cobbled streets of its dusty towns and villages to cheer for a right-wing politician, presidential candidate Diogo Freitas do Amaral. Said a sheepskincloaked farmer in Evora, a market town 100 km southeast of Lisbon: “In our hearts we are still socialists. But Portugal has been at a standstill for too long, and it is time for a change.”
A growing number of Portugal’s voters in this country of 10 million seem to favor Freitas do Amaral. In the first round of the presidential election on Jan. 26 against three left-wing rivals, the 44-year-old wealthy intellectual won a commanding 46.3 per cent of the votes cast. Many observers expressed surprise at his strong finish. The runner-up, three-time Socialist prime minister Mário Soares, 61, collected only 25.4 per cent of the vote. With the also-rans eliminated, Freitas do Amaral and Soares are campaigning for a runoff election this weekend to succeed retired Gen. Antonio Ramalho Eanes, a leftist who must legally step down after two five-year terms.
In trying to overtake his conservative opponent, Soares faces the formidable task of uniting Portugal’s fragmented left. One of the first-round candidates, feminist populist María Lourdes de Pintasilgo, has publicly endorsed Soares’s candidacy, but the larger question is whether Soares will receive the full support of the 20 per cent of Portuguese who usually vote Communist. Two weeks ago Communist Party leader Alvaro Cunhal, who appealed to his followers to mark their ballots for his former rival, hedged his support by calling Soares “the lesser of two evils.” Declared a Western diplomat in Lisbon last week: “The crucial issue is whether most of the Communists will obey Cunhal’s request or stay at home. At this
point, it looks as if the election is going to be a cliffhanger.”
A victory by Freitas do Amaral would represent a sharp swing to the right for Portugal, which has had 12 leftist and centre-left governments in the past 11 years. During a campaign stop in Montijo, a 16th-century fishing town near Lisbon, the onetime leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party told Maclean's that his goal is to encourage private enterprise by selling selected state industries and relaxing the country’s pro-labor laws.
“I have spoken to Portuguese immigrants in Brazil, Canada and the United States,” said the candidate, “and they have told me that they are prepared to invest large sums of money in Portugal but only if they have confidence in the stability of the economy.”
Critics of Freitas do Amaral, however, describe him as a puppet of the authoritarian right. Said Joao Frausto do Silva, chairman of the Soares campaign: “Freitas do Amaral himself is a quiet man who believes in democracy. But among his supporters are powerful industrialists and landowners on the ex-
treme right, and I am afraid that he is not strong enough to oppose them.” Still, many Portuguese appear convinced that Freitas do Amaral can control those forces. They point out that the president has the constitutional right to delay or veto legislation, though he must by law share power with Portugal’s 250member parliament. Clearly many voters count on Freitas do Amaral, and Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a Freitas do Amaral supporter, to end the country’s economic stagnation—at a time when Portugal, which joined the European Economic Community on Jan. 1, is counting on increased exports and foreign investment to lift a standard of living that is the EEC’s lowest. Said Antonio da Silva Lopes, 25, a construction worker who lives with his wife and three children in an unheated cement house in one of Lisbon’s many shantytowns: “For me, life in Portugal is very difficult. It is time for the politicians to stop talking about our problems and to try to solve them.”
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