Mario Soares, father of democracy in Portugal, dies at 92

Opponent of the Salazar regime who fended off a Communist push for power

Mário Soares, who died on Saturday in Lisbon aged 92, was the spirited Socialist leader who deftly steered Portugal from authoritarian rule to democracy, fended off a Communist push for power, led his country into the EU and helped its people recover a sense of confidence lost under almost half a century of miserly dictatorship.

He was known for an irrepressible good humour and zest for life, but his political career before the “Revolution of Carnations” returned Portugal to democracy in 1974 was dominated by struggle, imprisonment and deportation.

“If I had been living in a democracy, instead of spending 32 years in and out of jail, running from the police and conspiring in secret, I could have achieved a lot more for Portugal,” he said in 1996. This was the date of his official retirement from politics, having served two two-year terms as prime minister and then a decade as president.

But he was soon back in the fray, making an unsuccessful bid to be elected president of the European Parliament only three years later. In 2006, aged 81, he ran for Portugal’s presidency for a third time, showing in a sprightly campaign that he could still dance delighted women round village squares. Beaten into third place, he defended his candidacy as “an encouragement to all elderly people who refuse to die before their time”.

Respected voice

As Portugal’s leading elder statesman, Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares remained a respected voice in politics almost to the end of his life. In the 1990s, he expressed concerns that Europe was becoming dominated by “grey, technocratic leaders who rarely rise above day-to-day issues instead of assuming their responsibility to offer a vision of the future”.

By 2012, he was accusing eurozone leaders of pushing the single currency bloc “to the edge of the abyss”.

Born in Lisbon in 1924, Soares spent 32 years in tenacious opposition to the authoritarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar and then Marcello Caetano, before a leftwing military coup overthrew the regime in 1974 and brought him to the forefront of a country in turmoil.

The son of a distinguished education minister in Portugal’s first republic, he had been imprisoned 12 times, tried three times and, in 1968, deported to the islands of São Tomé e Príncipe, then one of Portugal’s African colonies. From 1970 he spent four years in exile in France, where he was one of the founders of the Portuguese Socialist party.

Returning in triumph after the 1974 revolution, he became the leading protagonist of Portugal’s peaceful evolution from a torpid dictatorship to a European democracy.

A speaker equally at home embarrassing hecklers in a fish market or charming visiting royalty, Soares first exercised his rhetorical skills as a defence lawyer in some of the political trials under the Salazar regime.

“Non-people”

For decades, Salazar's censors had treated Soares and his wife, the actress Maria Barroso, who died in 2015, as "non-people" (He is survived by his son João, a former mayor of Lisbon, and daughter Isabel). He was 49 before he appeared on national television. But he rapidly became the international face of the new Portugal after the overthrow of the old regime.

Almost 50 when he entered government, as foreign minister of the first post-revolutionary administration he was charged with negotiating the independence of Portugal’s African colonies. He saw the colonial wars that the country had fought for almost 30 years as Salazar’s biggest crime, together with his obscurantismo policy of relentless censorship, police informers and restraints on education and travel.

“There would have been no colonial wars if we had lived in democracy, nor the tragedy of the Angolan civil war that followed,” Soares said in 1996. At home, “Portugal was isolated from the world with no access to ideas or culture. Our mentalities were cramped for more than 40 years. This inflicted a heavy toll.”

Critics, particularly among the more than half a million white settlers who fled back to Portugal, attacked Soares for granting independence too hastily. Civil war later broke out in Mozambique as well. But with Portugal itself gripped by revolutionary upheaval and army conscripts in effect refusing to fight for the empire, Soares contended that a more gradual and orderly decolonisation would not have been possible.

Political struggles

The collapse of the dictatorship did not bring his political struggles to an end. After brief membership of the Communist party in his youth, he had become a stern of opponent of Soviet-style Marxism, leading the successful democratic opposition to a bid for power by hardline Communists and what he called “anarcho-populists” in the wake of the coup, a period that became known as “the long, hot summer of 1975”.

“There was a real threat that Portugal would become the Cuba of Europe and people feared I could become the ‘Kerensky’ of the Portuguese revolution,” he later said. “I was warned that I could be killed and [Henry] Kissinger offered me the safety of a professorship at an American university.” He declined the US secretary of state’s proposal.

As the danger of a civil conflict increased, Soares rallied support among Europe’s social democratic leaders They warned Moscow they would renounce the recently signed Helsinki accord formalising detente if Portugal moved into the Soviet bloc, an event that would have radically altered the European balance of power.

According to some reports, British intelligence agents were then arriving in Portugal shouldering rucksacks filled with biscuit tins stuffed with five-pound notes to help fund Soares’ Socialist party, which was also backed by the US. Soares said he left the operational details to others.

As prime minister he set Portugal on course for membership of what is now the EU, signing the accession treaty in 1985. But his two terms, in 1976-78 and 1983-85, were troubled periods involving fractious coalitions.

The stern measures he took to discipline the economy with the support of the International Monetary Fund made him unpopular with many voters suffering the effects of recession.

After narrowly defeating a rightwing candidate in 1986, he went on to become an increasingly popular president – a position of influence rather than executive power – and was re-elected by an overwhelming majority in 1991.

A self-confessed bon vivant who enjoyed good food, wine and collecting modern art, he readily acknowledged a distaste for figures and found business dull. He saw membership of the EU more as a means of locking Portugal into a system of parliamentary democracy than as an economic option.

Passionate critics

Although admired as one of the country's greatest statesman of the modern era, at home his critics could be passionate, especially over decolonisation and what some saw as a tendency to high-handedness. Political differences strained long and close friendships with two colleagues on the left of the Socialist party, the late Francisco Zalgado Zenha and the poet Manual Alegre.

In a famous campaign phrase, Soares described himself as “socialist, republican and secular”. The warm relations he established with other political parties, with the descendants of the royal family deposed in 1910, and with the Catholic Church were a fulfilment of his pledge to be an impartial president of all the Portuguese.

Despite his own imprisonment, he never advocated retribution against the dictatorship and was also instrumental in securing an amnesty for leftwing extremists accused of terrorism in the 1980s. “I was always against judging the old regime,” he said. “Portugal needed to forgive, forget and move on.” – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017)