Four decades on from the Carnation Revolution, Portugal is adrift

This decorated Chaimite tank is a symbol of Portugal’s 1974 revolution. Pedro Ribeiro Simões, CC BY-SA

To mark the 40th anniversary of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, the old chaimite tank decorated with peace signs has once again trundled along the Avenida da Liberdade. People walked the streets holding carnations and singing the verses of Grândola vila morena, the song by Zeca Afonso that has become the symbol of the Portuguese revolution.

The celebrations commemorate the day when mid-ranking officers of the Armed Forces Movement toppled the Estado Novo, the 50-year-old dictatorship of António Salazar and Marcelo Caetano and put an end to 13 years of colonial war in Africa. And for the third time, the protagonists of that revolution will not show up.

This is the third year in a row that the surviving members of the AFM are boycotting the commemorations in protest at the government and its policies. Once again, Major Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho, the old mastermind of the revolution, has publicly said that Portugal “needs a new AFM and a new 25th of April”.

They may be isolated, but his declarations still sound rather scary. The armed forces have already played a significant political role throughout recent Portuguese history.

The 1926 military coup that led to Salazar’s dictatorship was in large part a response to national economic disarray; 50 years later, the armed forces decided to intervene again. The virtually bloodless military coup known as the Carnation Revolution is considered the beginning of the “third wave” of democratisation in Europe, since it influenced the transition to democracy in Greece and Spain as well.

The revolution introduced a degree of personal freedom unknown to the majority of the Portuguese population – but the egalitarian principles embodied in the 1976 Constitution were never fully implemented.

The long-awaited reform of the public administration never took place, and it is still functioning in the same way it has since 1933. A system of open public contests for recruitment in the public sector was never implemented and many appointments still take place by direct nomination.

As a result, the true renewal of the Portuguese elite never took place. As the recent documentary Donos de Portugal showed, the connection between political and economic elites was strengthened during the dictatorship; and according to the Portuguese historian Fernando Rosas, the economic elites governing Portugal are pretty much the same ones that have ruled since the 1850s.

Interia and crisis

The legacy of the Estado Novo extends to the present in other ways. Portugal is still a highly divided country, plagued by crony capitalism and politics. Criticism of the situation has intensified in recent years – not least because Portugal has been fighting a dreadful economic crisis since 2011.

Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right government has blamed his socialist predecessor’s decision to ask for a bail-out for the country’s current problems. On the contrary, former socialist prime minister José Socrates blames his successor for the way he dealt with European directives.

They both have a point. Passos Coelho faced a tough task in avoiding a full-scale financial collapse; he was right to say this was a major threat to the welfare state. The slight economic upturn of recent months and the recent success in the public debt auction are good signs, but whether or not this is a result of the government’s actions is questioned.

Still, Passos Coelho’s critics have much more to say. Since the so-called “troika” – the representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Union – first visited Portugal to assess the implementation of its directives, the present government has tried to play the “good pupil”: they did not just stick to the troika’s memoranda, but went further and applied more austerity than necessary.

This “front-loading strategy” was completely unnecessary. For a small country with a weak economy and a trade deficit, policy like this easily becomes a degenerative disease. Internal consumption has plunged and a new wave of emigration has taken hold. The state-controlled water and electricity suppliers were sold to Chinese companies, while much of the banking system is now majority-backed with Angolan capital – an ironic “reverse colonialism”.

A few days ago, in one of several conferences that commemorated the anniversary of the revolution, a former president of the Republic, Ramalho Eanes criticised the “troikian” feeling of anguish and gloom, and expressed his wish that Portugal might finally achieve a true democracy.

On the same occasion, a sense of national reconciliation rose from the embrace between Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho and Ana Maria Caetano, daughter of the former prime minister of the Estado Novo.

These events are remarkable and the recent progress of the Portuguese economy is small but encouraging. But unfortunately, much more is required to fulfil Eanes’ wishes.