CUPRINS nr. 118


Politica internationala

The Portuguese Revolution



Introduction: how was before.
Portugal was a republic from 1910 to 1926, but under it parliamentary institutions did not work very well, also because of a widespread corruption and an unfavorable economic background. After only sixteen years a military coup d’état put an end to it instead installing a military dictatorship that promised order, authority, and discipline. Political parties were abolished, the small but well-rooted Marxist groups were fought and republican institutions definitively were put away. In 1928 University of Coimbra professor António de Oliveira Salazar was invited by the regime to serve as minister of finance, and four years later he became prime minister. ‘O Estado Novo’ (the new state) was born.

Salazar ruled from 1932 to 68, making from Portugal a corporative state, at least theoretically. In 1933 a new constitution was written, according to which government should be formed not by individuals’ representatives, but of economic groups formed by labor categories: employers, artisans, workers and so on. But actually the system was rather an autocratic dictatorship, guaranteed by an efficient secret police. Other measures that were taken were a strict censorship, a vigilant monitoring of the politically suspect, and the systematic jailing, exiling, and occasionally killing of the regime’s opponents.

In the 1950s Salazar instituted the first of two five-year economic plans, through which he tried to stimulate economic growth, and to rise living standards. Nevertheless during the 60s Portugal faced a crisis, as in the Portuguese African colonies of Angola, Mozambique, and former Portuguese Guinea guerrilla groups were organizing themselves in order to reach the liberation of their countries. Portugal fought these three guerrilla movements for more than a decade, and this caused problems for what was still a small, poor country in terms of labor and financial resources. Besides, new political pressures came from social changes caused by urbanization, emigration, the growth of the working class, and the emergence of a sizeable middle class. But Salazar’s answer was increasing repression, so that the regime became even more rigid! In 1968 he had an accident and could not rule anymore, so the Council of State called to take his place Marcello Caetano (1968-74), a Salazar pupil; despite of this, he tried to modernize and liberalize the old system, but he met the opposition of a group called “the bunker,” the old Salazaristas, including the country’s president, Admiral Américo Tomás, the senior officers of the armed forces, and the heads of some of the country’s largest financial groups. Thank to its power, the bunker was able to stop any fundamental change.

Wind of change
Meanwhile political and social tensions were growing; the military campaigns in Africa, as said before, damages the economic situation, and now it got worse also because of the first great oil “shock” of 1973. The few social change that were started did not find an end, and this produced larger social tensions and a stronger claiming for democracy. Within the military itself there were different opinions.

In 1973 General António de Spínola, famous for his experience in the African campaigns, published a critic of the conduct of the war and present an articulated program for Portugal’s renovation, in a book called ‘Portugal and the Future’; it was thought as a manifestation of Spinola’s will to become president.

Meanwhile a group of younger officers have formed an underground organization, the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas, MFA), that in April 25, 1974 was strong enough to overthrow the Caetano regime. Caetano and other important officials of the old regime were arrested and exiled, many to Brazil. The military took control of all important installations. Spínola considered the military’s action as a simple military coup d’état aimed at reorganizing the political structure with himself as the head, a ‘renovação’ (renovation) in his words. Indeed he emerged as the titular head of the new government. Within days tens of thousands of Portuguese went into the streets celebrating the downfall of the regime and demanding further change. The coercive apparatus of the dictatorship, that is secret police, Republican Guard, official party, censorship and so on, was abolished. Workers began taking over shops from owners, peasants seized private lands, low-level employees took over hospitals from doctors and administrators, and government offices were occupied by workers. Very early on, the demonstrations began to be manipulated by organized political elements, principally the PCP and other groups farther to the left. Radical labor and peasant leaders emerged from the underground where they had been operating for many years. Soares, the leader of the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS) and Álvaro Cunhal, head of the Portuguese Communist Party (Partido Comunista Português, PCP) returned from exile to Portugal within days of the revolt and received heroes’ welcomes. Several other groups wielded considerable power. In the first weeks of the revolution, a key group was the Junta of National Salvation, composed entirely of high-ranking, politically moderate military officers. Working alongside it was a seven-member coordinating committee made up of politically radical junior officers who had managed the coup. By the end of May 1974, these two bodies worked together with other members in the Council of State, the nation’s highest governing body.

Spínola became the first interim president of the new regime in May 1974, and he chose the first of six provisional governments that were to govern the country until two years later when the first constitutional government was formed. Headed by a prime minister, the moderate civilian Adelino da Palma Carlos, the government consisted of the moderate Popular Democratic Party (Partido Popular Democrata, PPD), the PS, the PCP, five independents, and one military officers. Gradually, however, the MFA emerged as the most powerful single group in Portugal as it overruled Spínola in several major decisions. Members of the MFA formed the Continental Operations Command (Comando Operacional do Continente, COPCON) composed of 5,000 elite troops with Major (later Brigadier General) Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho as its commander. He had directed the April 25 coup. Because the regular police withdrew from the public sector during the time of revolutionary turmoil and the military was somewhat divided, COPCON became the most important force for order in the country and was firmly under the control of radical left-wing officers.

Spínola formed a second provisional government in mid-July with army Colonel (later General) Vasco Gonçalves as prime minister and eight military officers along with members of the PS, PCP, and PPD. Spínola chose Gonçalves because he was a moderate, but he was to move increasingly to the left as he headed four provisional governments between July 1974 and September 1975. Spínola’s position further weakened when he was obliged to consent to the independence of Portugal’s African colonies, rather than achieving the federal solution he had outlined in his book. Guinea-Bissau gained independence in early September, and talks were underway on the liberation of the other colonies. Spínola attempted to seize full power in late September but was blocked by COPCON and resigned from office. His replacement was the moderate General Francisco de Costa Gomes. Gonçalves formed a third provisional government with heavy MFA membership, nine military officers in all, and members of the PS, PCP, and PPD.

In the next year the PCP was highly successful in placing its members in many national and local political and administrative offices, and it was consolidating its hold on the country’s labor unions. The MFA came ever more under the control of its radical wing, and some of its members came under the influence of the PCP. In addition, smaller, more radical left-wing groups joined with the PCP in staging huge demonstrations that brought about the increasing adoption of leftist policies, including nationalizations of private companies.

An attempted coup by Spínola in early March 1975 failed, and he fled the country. In response to this attack from the right, radical elements of the military abolished the Junta of National Salvation and formed the Council of the Revolution as the country’s most powerful governing body. The council was made responsible to a 240-member radical military parliament, the Assembly of the Armed Forces. A fourth provisional government was formed, more radical than its predecessor, and was headed by Gonçalves, with eight military officers and members of the PS, PCP, PPD, and Portuguese Democratic Movement (Movimento Democrático Português, MDP), a party close to the PCP.

The new government began a wave of nationalizations of banks and large businesses. Because the banks were often holding companies, the government came after a time to own almost all the country’s newspapers, insurance companies, hotels, construction companies and many other kinds of businesses, so that its share of the country’s gross national product (GNP) amounted to 70 percent.

Towards normalization
Elections were held on April 25, 1975, for the Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution. The PS won nearly 38 percent the vote, while the PPD took 26.4 percent. The PCP, which opposed the elections, maybe because its leadership expected to do poorly, won less than 13 percent of the vote. A democratic right-wing party, the Party of the Social Democratic Center (Partido do Centro Democrático Social, CDS), came in fourth with less than 8 percent. Despite the fact that the elections took place in a period of revolutionary ferment, most Portuguese voted for middle-class parties committed to pluralistic democracy.

Most members of the military welcomed the beginning of a transition to civilian democracy. Some elements of the MFA, however, had opposed the elections.

After the elections came the “hot summer” of 1975 when the revolution made itself felt in the countryside: landless agricultural laborers in the south seized the large farms on which they worked; many estates in the Alentejo were confiscated and transformed into collective farms. In the north, where most farms were small and owned by those who worked them, such actions did not occur, instead the north’s small farmers, conservative property-owners, violently repulsed the attempts of radical elements and the PCP to collectivize their land. Some farmers formed right-wing organizations in defense of private landownership.

Other revolutionary actions were met with hostility, as well. In mid-July, the PS and the PPD withdrew from the fourth provisional government to protest against antidemocratic actions by radical military and leftist political forces. The PS and other democratic parties were faced with a potentially lethal threat to the new freedom posed by the PCP’s open contempt for parliamentary democracy and its dominance in Portugal’s main trade union, Intersindical, or as it came to be known in 1977, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Intersindical (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses -Intersindical Nacional, (CGTP-IN).

The United States and many West European countries expressed considerable alarm at the prospect of a Marxist-Leninist takeover in a NATO country. The result of these concerns was an influx of foreign financial aid into Portugal to shore up groups committed to pluralist parliamentary democracy.

By the time of the “hot summer” of 1975, several currents could be seen within the MFA. A moderate group, the Group of Nine, issued a manifesto in August that advocated nonaligned socialism along the lines of Scandinavian social democracy. Another group published a manifesto that criticized both the Group of Nine and those who had drawn close to the PCP and singled out Prime Minister Gonçalves for his links to the communists. These differences of opinion signaled the end of the fifth provisional government, in power only a month, under Gonçalves in early September: Gonçalves was subsequently expelled from the Council of the Revolution as this body became more moderate. The sixth provisional government was formed, headed by Admiral José Baptista Pinheiro de Azevedo; it included the leader of the Group of Nine and members of the PS, the PPD, and PCP. This government was to remain in power until July 1976, when the first constitutional government was formed.

The granting of independence to Mozambique in September 1975, to East Timor in October, and to Angola in November meant that the colonial wars were ended. The attainment of peace, the main aim of the military during all these months, was thus achieved, and the military could begin the transition to civilian rule. The polling results of the April 1975 constituent assembly elections legitimized the popular support given to the parties that could manage and welcome this transition.

An attempted coup by radical military units in November 1975 marked the last serious leftist effort to seize power. They were blocked, however, on November 25 after Colonel António dos Santos Ramalho Eanes declared a state of emergency. The revolutionary units were quickly surrounded and forced to surrender and COPCON was abolished.

A degree of compromise among competing political visions of how the new state should be organized was reached, and the constitution of 1976 was proclaimed on April 2, 1976. Several weeks later, on April 25, elections for the new parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, were held and they were won by the PS, with 36.7 percent of the vote, compared with the 25.2 percent for the PDP, 16.7 percent for the CDS, and 15.2 percent for the PCP. Elections for the presidency were held in June and won easily by General Eanes, who enjoyed the backing of parties to the right of the communists, the PS, the PPD, and the CDS. So moderate democratic parties received most of the vote, but revolutionary achievements were not discarded, however. The first constitutional government was formed, with Soares as prime minister. It governed from July 23, 1976, to January 30, 1978.

The constitution pledged the country to realize socialism. Furthermore, the constitution declared the extensive nationalizations and land seizures of 1975 irreversible. The military supported these commitments through a pact with the main political parties that guaranteed its guardian rights over the new democracy for four more years.


Gallagher, Tom. Portugal: A Twentieth-Century Interpretation. Manchester: Manchester University Press,1983.
Caramani, Daniele, The Societies of Europe: Elections in Western Europe since 1815, New York, NY: Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc.,2000.
Magone, Jose M., European Portugal: The Difficult Road to Sustainable Democracy, New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. 1997
Giannotti, Paolo, Stefano Pivato, Il Portogallo dalla Prima alla Seconda Repubblica. Urbino: Argalia, 1978 (

- Student Erasmus, Facultatea de Stiinte Politice, Universitatea din Cagliari.




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