Portugal pays respects to Mário Soares’s ‘life of combat’

Former socialist PM and president, who has died at 92, was key figure after dictatorship

A portrait  of Mário Soares is displayed on a facade of the Portuguese Socialist Party headquarters in Lisbon on Sunday, one day after his death. Soares was widely seen as the father of Portugal’s modern-day democracy. Photograph: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

A portrait of Mário Soares is displayed on a facade of the Portuguese Socialist Party headquarters in Lisbon on Sunday, one day after his death. Soares was widely seen as the father of Portugal’s modern-day democracy. Photograph: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

 

Portugal is observing three days of official mourning following the death on Saturday of Mário Soares (92), the socialist politician who was hugely influential in the country’s transition from dictatorship to modern democracy.

“It was a long life of combat, because he always joined all the battles of his time,” wrote the Socialist Party prime minister António Costa, in paying tribute to a man who held the prime ministerial post on two occasions, as well as the country’s presidency for a decade.

But Soares, who trained as a lawyer, rose to prominence as a dissident under the right-wing totalitarian regime of António de Oliveira Salazar. Soares was repeatedly imprisoned and then forced into exile in 1968. He returned to Portugal in the wake of the peaceful Carnation Revolution of April 1974, which threw off the shackles of dictatorship but ushered in a period of deep political uncertainty.

As foreign minister in the transitional government, his most dramatic and controversial accomplishment was to grant Portugal’s African colonies immediate independence. Civil wars followed in Angola and Mozambique, but Soares argued that the injustice of colonialism and Portugal’s own political turbulence at the time meant the process had to take place swiftly.

In 1976, he led his Socialist Party to victory in the general election, having staunchly resisted joining forces with the communists, despite mounting pressure for him to do so. He later noted that keeping the country out of the hands of the hard left had prevented “dragging Portugal into the abyss”.

Accessible education

Soares’s first spell as prime minister ended in 1978, before he won a second term from 1983-1985. His overall legacy was considerable, laying down the foundations for the social security system, as well as making education accessible to more Portuguese. He also led the country into the European community, a significant step after the relative isolationism of the Salazar regime.

“More than a fighter for freedom and for democracy, Mário Soares was a political animal,” wrote columnist Paulo Tavares as he took stock of the politician’s career in Diário de Notícias newspaper. “He pretended not to read the government dossiers, he fed that myth, but he managed to explain with simple words any complex decision.”

That ability to connect with ordinary Portuguese was perhaps most visible ahead of Soares’s election as president in 1986. The end of his second term as prime minister had been tainted by austerity measures as he sought to bring the national finances under control and he was polling at around 5 per cent early in the presidential campaign.

However, his energy and charisma and the racy slogan Soares é fixe (“Soares is cool”) eventually won over voters and earned him the keys to Belém Palace, where he would remain president for 10 years. It was a relatively hands-off position, but one which saw his popularity soar as he mostly kept above the political fray.

Soares resigned from politics in 1996, but found it hard to stay away. In 2006, in his 80s, he ran for president again – this time unsuccessfully.