Presidential Profile – Mário Soares, Portuguese President and Prime Minister (1924-2017)

Mário Soares, who has died aged 92, was widely regarded as the father of Portugal’s modern democracy. Following his death on 7 January the government decreed three days of national mourning. Soares was the first civilian to head an elected government in more than half a century and served as the president of Portugal between 1986 and 1996.

The former Socialist party leader played a crucial role in stabilizing the country after the 1974 Carnation revolution that overthrew four decades of dictatorship. He was arrested a dozen times, tortured and was living in forced exile, amongst others, in France and on the island colony of Sao Tome off the West African coast. In 1973 he founded the Socialist party (PS), which he led until 1985.

After the 1974 coup, Soares became minister in a provisional government led by moderate factions of the Portuguese military. As minister for overseas negotiations he was responsible for initiating the policy under which Portugal divested itself of its colonies. His role in granting rapid independence to Portugal’s colonies made him widely respected in Africa, but earned the lasting enmity of many of the hundreds-of-thousands of Portuguese settlers who fled from Angola and the other territories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soares between two key actors in Angola’s decolonization process, José Eduardo dos Santos of the MPLA and Jonas Savimbi, leader of UNITA.

His greatest achievement was, arguably, to prevent the communists from overtaking the country in the turbulent years following the Carnation revolution. In November 1975 Portuguese communists organised a coup against the governing bodies but failed. Supported by Soares, pro-democracy and moderate General António Ramalho Eanes then carried out a counter coup, and thereby re-established the democratic process. The close relationship between both men resurfaced during the 1976 elections. Soares supported Eanes in his bid for presidency and the latter asked Soares to head a minority government. Soares resigned in December 1977 following the government’s defeat of a confidence motion. He was asked to form a new government, this time with the rightwing Democratic Social Centre (CDS). Yet, the gap in outlook between the two parties soon made the arrangement unworkable and in July 1978 the CDS withdrew its support. Soares did not resign immediately and was sacked by President Eanes, a move that caused ill-feeling between the two men for years afterwards.

Soares resignation in 1978 marked the beginning of a less successful period in his political career. President Eanes appointed three technocratic cabinets in a row in the period 1978-1979 (the cabinets Nobre da Costa, Mota Pinto and Pintasilgo). Furthermore, the centre-right wing parties succeeded in forming the Democratic Alliance (AD)[1], which won the 1979 and 1980 election. In 1981, Soares also had to endure intense criticism from leftwingers in his party for backing the AD’s proposal to revise the revolutionary constitution, which would limit the power of the president. With the support of the PS, which gave the AD the required two-thirds majorities, constitutional amendments were passed in 1982.

The PS returned to government in 1983 as part of a “Central Bloc” coalition with the Social Democrat Party (PSD). Barely two years later, Soares was again forced to resign after the new PSD leader Aníbal Cavaco Silva announced his party’s withdrawal from the government. The early 1985 elections resulted in a staggering loss for the PS and, to Soares’ great frustration, it was the PSD leader who took Portugal into the EU the following year.

 

Soares signs the EU membership treaty in 1985.

After his removal from government, Soares decided to run for the presidency in 1986. He won and remained president until 1996. Throughout the whole period in office, President Soares faced political opponent and PM Cavaco Silva whose cabinet enjoyed the support of a parliamentary majority. Tensions increased between both leaders: while the President used the veto power seven times during his first term in office (1986-1991) he vetoed thirty laws during his second term (1991-1996).

Soares served as a member of the European parliament from 1999 until 2004, and made an unsuccessful bid for a further term as president of Portugal in 2006.

His wife, actor, teacher and political activist Maria de Jesus Simões Barroso, whom he married in prison in 1949, died in 2015. He is survived by their daughter, Isabel, and son João who served as mayor of Lisbon and minister of culture.

Notes

[1] The Democratic Alliance (AD) was composed of the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS), the People’s Monarchist Party (PPM), including also a group of dissidents of the right wing of the Socialist Party (PS) who were disappointed by the previous Soares government.

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