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Can Portugal reconcile military, democracy?

Probably the Portuguese armed forces' biggest worry at the moment is that they will start paying taxes this year for the first time in history.

But while the barracks are grumbling about pay, Portugal's politicians are trading coup charges as though the tanks were soon about to descend on parliament.

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It all began when Prime Minister Francisco Pinto Balsemao announced the government had foiled a plot to subvert the country's democratic institutions on the night of the Feb. 12 general strike.

As Portugal's democratic experiment dates back only to 1976 and the country had to live through one successful coup and at least three attempted ones to get that far, the idea that democracy had narrowly escaped another attempt sent shockwaves through the political system.

But the armed forces appeared unaffected and the population remained calm.

The government thought it had uncovered a plan for an uprising linked with the strike. The interior minister announced that a carload of arms, bombs, and inflammatory documents had been found in central Lisbon the night of the strike.

The latest official version says the police uncovered a plan by a left-wing guerrilla group, the Popular Forces of April 25, to jam a state radio frequency and air a pirate broadcast on the night of the strike.

But the evidence for the alleged plot appears less than solid and the government has assumed a more subdued posture after its original triumphal stand. Some analysts say the government was anxious to score a propaganda victory over the communists after the strike and therefore made a mountain out of a molehill.

Another version is that the government reacted nervously because it had been given advance warning that something very serious was in the air. It just bit the wrong bait, this version runs.

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Whatever the truth, coup accusations are now in fashion. Portuguese Communist Party leader Alvaro Cunhal last week accused the ruling Democratic Alliance with plotting its own military coup, but predicted the armed forces would not back it.

''The Democratic Alliance wants to get control of the military commands when the Constitution is revised,'' he told a press conference after the strike, ''so as to be able to alter the commands and then use the armed forces to stage a coup.

''At this moment the armed forces are controlled by officers faithful to the principles of the Constitution and democracy. A counterrevolutionary conspiracy has no chance. All the reactionaries could try is some small adventure that would be doomed to failure.''

It leaves the impression that eight years after a group of young captains toppled Europe's longest-lived dictatorship, the political parties are determined the armed forces should not be allowed to just sit in their barracks and sulk about taxes. At the present, the coup fever seems to exist only in the minds of politicians

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