Commemorating Portugal’s ambiguous revolution

Almost half a century of autocratic rule came to an end in Portugal on 25 April 1974. As the country looks forward to marking this momentous event, will its troubled socialist government reflect on the fragility of Portuguese democracy over the last fifty years?

Mural to commemorate the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974.
Mural to commemorate the Portuguese Carnation Revolution of 1974. Credit: Peter Delius / Alamy Stock Photo

The Portuguese coup d’etat of 25 April 1974 brought to an end 48 years of continuous authoritarian rule. Decades of autocracy from the right were quickly followed by left-wing upheavals. Portugal’s sprawling African territories were handed over to pro-Soviet liberation movements, one of the greatest successes the Soviets had enjoyed anywhere in the developing world. Moreover, the abrupt collapse of the Portuguese presence in southern Africa soon brought an end to white minority rule.

Over the succeeding fifty years, governments of the centre-right and left have alternated in power after a period of initial supervision of politics by the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). The left has been politically dominant for most of this century. It is natural that it wishes to celebrate an event marking the debut of democracy and its own emergence from long years of repression.

What is concerning to some observers is that the ruling Socialist Party (PS) has decided that the commemoration should be a strictly governmental matter rather than a national event with an organising committee drawn from other parties and citizens from various walks of life. Pedro Adão e Silva, the culture minister, is the person in charge – 1974 happened to be the year of his birth. The coup of that year involved soldiers from across the political spectrum. His party had been formed just a matter of months earlier by Mario Soares (1924-2017), who is arguably the best-known figure in the story of Portuguese democracy.

Today the PS is more radical than during its founder’s heyday. For want of an economic formula that would shape Portugal’s direction, it has focused instead on expressions of cultural radicalism and the fostering of a large service-orientated bureaucracy. Lacking an overall majority, it showed no hesitation about ruling in tandem with the Communist Party and the rest of the far-left from 2015 to 2019.

It was from this quarter that determined attempts were made to divert Portugal from a democratic path within months of the coup and instead impose a Soviet system or a half-baked version of Cuban ‘popular power’. The most redoubtable foe of this power-grab turned out to be Soares.

He was a key moving force behind the action of moderate military units, which, on 25 November 1975, neutralised and disarmed far-left military units, bringing an end to an increasingly chaotic internal situation. The 25 November event will be overlooked in the ceremonials. This is seen as paradoxical by many, as it opened the way for Portugal evolving into a Western-style democracy. It was a black day, however, for those on the far-left with whom the PS had later made common cause and this gives it a problematic character. The minister has pronounced that ‘we must celebrate what unites us’, which means that there will be no awkward spotlight on the actions of those who couldn’t stomach the idea of a liberal democracy taking root in Portugal.

Chief among them was the head of the Communist Party, Álvaro Cunhal, who declared in June 1975, weeks after elections for a constituent assembly had left his party with just 13 per cent of the votes on a 92 per cent turnout, that ‘the elections have no importance for me, nothing’.

Soares fought Cunhal over control of the trade-union movement and it was the communists’ attempt to seize control of the whole media that led to the final parting of the ways, producing months of rioting across northern and central Portugal. These are just some of the dramatic features of a contested period that also led to profound upheavals in the economy. António Costa – prime minister since 2015 and who has just resigned amid corruption allegations – and the speaker of the National Assembly, Augusto Santos Silva, were young men active in revolutionary politics at that time. They would have seen Soares as a tool of US imperialism and reactionary interests. Only much later, when he proved to be an adept leader able to win elections under a socialist label, did they and many others on the far-left drift towards the PS in order to be able to play decision-making roles.

The biographies of many of those in charge of Portugal in an emotive anniversary year suggests that the temptation will be strong to place in the foreground symbols and occurrences which emphasise the ‘anti-fascist’ struggle. There is likely to be much emphasis placed on those who languished in prison for their political activities before 1974. They were liberated in the days after the coup, but within less than a year larger numbers of people had been seized and placed in detention once the radicalisation process got underway.

The attempt to influence historical memory and extract political capital will require deft footwork. Even celebrating the coup itself is no straightforward matter. The government of Marcello Caetano fell like a house of cards. Today there is no successful political party nostalgic for the ancien régime. There were no great challenges in dismantling authoritarian institutions, a lot of which were moribund. The coup was over almost as soon as it began, and the revolution which ensued, as different factions drew on military allies in the MFA to shape the new course, soon dissolved into acrimony and strife.

Ironically, the job of phasing out the tutelary role that military radicals exercised over the infant democracy proved harder than the smooth demolition of the authoritarian regime itself. The Council of the Revolution was the stronghold of the military until it was wound up in 1982.

Most of the prominent military figureheads from the revolutionary period have died. None of them carved out roles of enduring historical importance after 1975. When Otelo de Carvalho, the major who planned the 1974 coup, died in 2021, he wasn’t given a state funeral. This was due to the outcome of his attempt, in the 1980s, to place himself at the head of a new revolutionary vanguard. ‘The Popular Front of the 25th of April’ (FP-25) carried out acts of terrorism resulting in numerous deaths, which led to Carvalho spending nearly all the second half of the 1980s in prison before being amnestied.

The pitfalls of dwelling on specific features of a long drawn-out revolutionary event were demonstrated in early 2023 when it emerged that plans had been made (only to be quickly shelved), to give the President of Angola, João Lourenço, a very prominent role in the impending 2024 commemoration. He heads the autocratic regime of an oil-rich state, which has been widely accused of arresting the development of the country by plundering its most precious natural resource. When the president openly complained about the Portuguese authorities allowing a whistleblower to avail of the justice system in Portugal, an outcry occurred in Lisbon. In response, the government scaled down the role of the Angolan leader.

It had not just been the Socialist government but the centre-right President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa who had stood over this clumsy invitation. Former prime minister Costa had been born into a communist family, while de Sousa had grown up in the heart of the old regime, his father having been a former minister of the colonies. Their cohabitation was a sign of democratic consensus, which is likely to be one of the themes underscored next April in Lisbon.

Portugal is one of the most unequal societies in Europe and its stagnating economy is being overtaken in terms of productivity by countries such as Romania. There is disgruntlement about corruption, inefficiency and sharp practice, which is felt to extend across much of the political spectrum. The cohabitation between Costa and de Sousa was felt among growing numbers to confirm the presence of a trans-party oligarchy, which rules in defence of its own caste interests.

Portugal has a fast-growing populist party on the right called Chega, and it is possible that opponents of the Socialists will draw attention to those for whom the 25th of April was not a deliverance. They include victims of land seizures in the name of revolutionary justice, the nearly one million people (by no means all white) who hastily fled the colonies in 1974-5, the numerous black soldiers who were persecuted and killed for siding with the pre-1974 Lisbon regime, and the 15 million citizens who lost their Portuguese citizenship as new states were hurriedly carved out of the empire.

A mainstream academic figure, the economic historian Manuel Villaverde Cabral has argued that a restrictive democracy has sprung up in the aftermath of the revolution, pointing out that the 1976 constitution, initially pledging the country to ‘building socialism’ was never submitted to a referendum.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the government will have no difficulty in mobilising big crowds for next year’s festivities. A much-expanded public sector includes many people of all ages who feel they are direct beneficiaries of the changes embarked upon in 1974. The combined left parties, which make up around 45 per cent of the electorate, will bring out their adherents.

What of the 51.43 per cent of people who abstained from voting in the 2019 elections (it was a mere 8.7 per cent in 1974 when supposedly the Portuguese public had been dumbed down by years of dictatorship)? Many of them are likely to be apathetic and will just see it as another public holiday like the one commemorating the overthrow of the monarchy on 5 October 1910. The establishment of a republic was the prelude to sixteen years of chronic instability in which freedoms were diminished and the Portuguese were badly divided.

The profile of Portugal’s political class today is not so different from that of the bourgeois anti-clerical republic dominated by verbose and demagogic lawyers more concerned with emoting than with mobilising the state in constructive action. For fifty years Portugal has mostly enjoyed stability after the initial revolutionary turmoil, yet perhaps the organisers of the state-led anniversary would add lustre to the proceedings by reflecting on how fragile the democratic order is in many places. After all, there was no guarantee that Portugal could have prevented a major collision and perhaps even civil war, but for the action of resolute civilians, such as Soares, and strong-nerved military moderates in isolating and defeating the revolutionary zealots in 1975. The culmination of that democratic fight-back, opening the road for the normalisation of freedoms, is precisely the event that will not be cherished when the celebratory fanfare begins next spring.


Tom Gallagher