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White water ahead for Portugal's new center-left alliance

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Portugal's new government faces a daunting array of challenges. Some commentators even see the Socialist-Social Democratic coalition led by Mario Soares as providing possibly the last opportunity for making the present political system work.

Since the military coup which ended decades of dictatorship in 1974, the system of power-sharing between the president and parliament has produced a series of revolving-door governments with an average life span of only 7.5 months - and a notable failure to tackle fundamental economic and social problems.

Today, the accumulating crisis is rapidly approaching breaking point. Portugal's foreign debt stands at about $13.5 billion, or about 55 percent of the gross national product, while the balance of payments deficit of $3.3 billion represents 14 percent of GNP. Inflation is running at over 20 percent.

The country needs relatively large sums of new financing to meet its short-term commitments, and there has been some reluctance by international banks to lend money, despite a comforting 688-ton gold reserve stacked in Lisbon's central bank vaults.

Socialist Prime Minister Soares, a genial man who has twice before held the post, warned bluntly when he took office that no one should expect miracles. His government, he said, would launch immediately into an 18-month emergency economic program to reduce the external debt and dish up measures that will be painful and unpleasant for all.

The gravity of the government's task is difficult enough, but it would be considerably eased if the Prime Minister were able to depend on a sense of national responsibility and collective solidarity from parliamentary deputies both in and out of office.


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