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Portugal's puzzled Socialists pick up the pieces

The crumbling walls of the Socialist Party headquarters in central Lisbon have been covered with a heavy coat of pink paint. The cracked windows have had their wooden frames repaired, and reaching out across the main entrance hall, a painter has just finished four long months of work on a mural dedicated to the Portuguese worker.

It is all poignantly symbolic. Portugal's major opposition party, which once was so powerful and self-assured as to be able to rule the country quite alone, is suffering a major identity crisis.

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The party leadership and the rank and file are split as they face a dilemma increasingly shared by European socialist parties: Should the Portuguese Socialist Party reaffirm its historical roots as the "party of the left" or rather, present itself as moderate and middle of the road, social democratic rather than socialist in the strictly Marxist sense?

Portuguese Socialists are treating the question in strategic rather than academic terms. They readily accept that lack of definition was behind their crushing electoral defeat last December.

The Socialists saw their share of the vote cut from 35 percent to 27 percent in the general election of Dec. 2. Two weeks later, in the local elections, they lost control of every town in Portugal.

The Socialist Party had campaigned on the platform of "progress, stability, and social peace in Portugal" -- a curious mixture of promises that tried to say all things to all men and in the end said very little to anyone. Their posters had shown party leader Mario Soares in two different moods. One had him dressed in stiff collar, tie and suit, the other in shirt sleeves and jeans holding out his arm in a clenched fist.

the juxtaposition of Mr. Soares, former prime minister, and Mario, the party militant, was aimed at broadening the Socialists' electoral appeal. In the end it was seen as contradictory and proved ineffectual.

The Socialists lost not just because they were ambiguous, but also because their rivals were so clear in their aims.

On the one side, the center-right Democratic Alliance pledged a dramatic rollback of many of the political and economic changes caused by the 1974 revolution.

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On the other, the orthodox pro-Moscow Communist Party, equally committed, but to the nationalizations and the "conquests of the revolution."

The scenario of the Portuguese general election was confused. The Democratic Alliance won, but the Communist Party increased its vote from 14 percent to nearly 20 percent. In the local elections the Communists also claimed their own kind of victory by capturing a number of town councils.

The results left the Socialists with the convictin that they had lost but without really knowing to whom they had lost. In sharing out the blame, the party has become deeply divided.

At leadership level, ideological differences have sparked off the first major challenge to the kind of leadership that has been pursued until now by Mr. Soares. The Socialist leader has in the past earned himself a reputation as a Portuguese Harold Wilson.

He has resembled the former British Labour Party leader by conciliating the various tendencies within his party and smoothing over the cracks with the simple tricks of political mastery. Said a leading Socialist commentator, "The Dec. 2 election was not just a defeat for ambiguity, it was a defeat for the tactical indefinition of Mario Soares."

At rank-and-file level militants have been demanding an extraordinay congress to bring the current ideological dispute into the open and make the party leadership more accountable.

But ideological and strategic differences aside, the position of the party leader has not been allowed to become an issue.

Mr. Soares' term as prime minister during the difficult postrevolutionary period still makes him the sole party figure with a truly national following.

He easily outshines his two lieutenants, who with him have formed a triumvirate within the Socialist Party: Vitor Constancio, the former finance minister whose experience in tackling the country's economy has made him sceptical of the workings of pure socialism; and Jorge Sampaio, the party's left-wing ideologue, who recognizes the value of the workers' vote but who refuses to move any closer to the Communist Party on account of it.

The triumvirate appears to have emerged triumphant from the party's latest internal crisis. A recent meeting of the Socialists' main representative body, the 150-man national commission, rejected the proposal to hold an extraordinary congress. The commission also voted for a major reshuffle of the 15-man secretariat, the party's main executive arm.

Three prominent left-winners, Jaime Gama, Manuel Alegre, and Tito de Morais, have been removed, apparently for their attacks on the middle-of-the-road policies adopted recently by Mr. Soares and his closest supporters.

"There is no schism in the party," said the party leader after the "purge." But clearly the move against the left wing of the party appears to have undermined his preferred image of socialism as an ideology that can accommodate wide differences of opinion.

Behind Mr. Soares' change of tactics is a desire to learn from the mistakes of the past and to present the Socialist Party as a clear political option before the next election. For the moment the leader has chosen to opt on the side of moderate social democracy. He is gambling that the Portuguese will grow tired, if not outright fearful, of the Democratic Alliance on the right, and the Communist Party on the left.


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