13 SEPTEMBER 1975, Page 9


The conservative alternative

Robert Moss

The removal of General Vasco Goncalves at the end of last week is the best bit of news from Portugal this year, but it is not sufficient reason to break open the champagne. It was remarkable that he was able to hang on as prime minister until August 29, in the teeth of opposition from all the democratic parties and from four fifths of the officers in the ruling Armed Forces Movement (AFM). His survival capacity was a testimony, not just to the strength of the Communist Party (to which no one doubts his 100 per cent commitment) and the transformation of President Costa Gomes into its ventriloquist's dummy, but to the havering indecision of the non-Communist left.

The decision to switch him to a still more sensitive job as Chief of Staff of the armed forces was of course no concession to the anti-Communists. On the contrary: lithe AFM had accepted the change, Vasco Goncalves could have set in motion a new 'clean-out' (saneamento) of the party's enemies in the barracks. But for once, the non-Communist radicals in the AFM displayed some instinct for their own survival (despite the astonishing vacillations of the 'moderate' army chief of staff, General Fabiao) and Vasco Goncalves was forced to resign. For the first time in a long while, the initiative seems to have slipped out of the hands of the Communists in Portugal.

But don't clap just yet. The next step may well be a patched-up compromise between the Communists and the non-Communist left, engineered by the new prime minister, Admiral Pinheiro Azevedo, This could conceivably amount to the 'opening to democracy' that will no doubt be hailed by social democrats elsewhere. Or it could be a successful manoeuvre to split the anti-Communist forces that will leave tremendous social tensions — and the imminent collapse of the economy — unresolved.

In assessing any future deal between the rival factions within the AFM and the Portuguese left, we will need to bear three things in mind. First, that a deal that does not make room for the non-Marxist parties (notably the PPD and the CDS, not to mention the ones that have been driven underground) will not represent the genuine balance of forces in Portugal. Second, that the men in the forefront of the latest governmental crisis are mostly Marxists, although their ideology is in some cases of a distinctly wuzzy hue. This goes for leading anti-Communists in the AFM such as Major Melo Antunes or Brigadier Pezarat Correia as well as for the Socialist politicians. Third, deal that involves keeping on General Costa Gomes as president is now inevitably suspect to many democrats throughout the country, since — although not a Communist himself — he committed himself totally to Vasco Gon plves and, beyond this, has shown an utter incapacity for action.

These underlying factors lead me to believe that a workable and democratic compromise in Portugal would necessarily involve (i) the formation of a new coalition government including representatives from all democratic parties; (ii) a restructuring of the AFM to give greater weight to non-Marxists who are prepared to endorse fresh incentives for foreign investment and liberal economic recipes for the country's economic crisis; and (iii) the appointment of a new president, who under this scenario would need to be a senior military man who could honestly claim to stand above politics.

Now this is a scenario that the Communists are never going to accept, and it is extremely doubtful whether the Portuguese left as a whole would accept anything like it. But I have not stated it as an arid academic exercise, but for a critical, and very immediate, political reason. It seems to me that if the see-saw of Portuguese politics dips back to a new 'united front' government in which the power of the Communists is diminished, but no more, then the Communists will merely have gained time to confuse and divide their rivals before the balance tips back again. That is, so long as effective opposition to the Communists comes only from the non-Communist left.

But this, in fact, has long ceased to be the case. The feeling is now widespread in Portugal that the AFM and the left as a whole have failed, and that the solution for the country's problems rests with very different people. If she chances upon these lines, I suppose that Mrs Judith Hart will feel as though she has been proved right. (She was in Lisbon applauding the 'democratic' aspirations of Vasco Goncalves' disintegrating government on the very day a pro-Communist mob that turned out to support him in front of the Belem palace was howling 'Down with social democracy.') In her eyes, the only threat to democracy in Portugal comes from the right. If we translate her phrases into what they really mean, we hit upon what may, indeed, be a truth: that the only thoroughgoing challenge to people's democracy in Portugal comes from the non-Marxist parties, and above all from those among them who are committed to economic pluralism as well as political pluralism. There is a growing feeling among many of their leaders — especially local organisers in the North — that there will be no solution for Portugal from within the ranks of the AFM. This feeling was transcribed in a remarkably. frank and courageous interview with Francisco SA Carneiro, the brilliant, young Oporto lawyer who was one of the founders of the PPD, that was published recently in Jornai Novo. He hinted that the AFM had lost all right to govern and should retire from politics.

You have only to travel North to discover that there are large numbers of Portuguese who refuse to accept what much of the foreign press says, at any rate by implication: that the only politial choice for Portugal is between pro-Soviet Marxism and anti-Soviet Marxism. What has been happening in the North this summer, although only sketchily reported in the British press, makes the Lisbon politicking look like a Punch-and-Judy show. The sacking of Communist Party offices in Northern towns is only the trailer to what could be — in the absence of a more fundamental change in Lisbon than seems likely even now — a far-reaching counter-revolution.

In and around Oporto, you often hear the old boast that all of Portugal's revolutions have been made in the North, except the last one, which has turned out to be a hopeless failure, The North is now 'Indian country' for the left; Alvaro Cunhal, the Communist leader, no longer dares to give speeches there, and the pro-Communist regional commander, Brigadier Corvacho (who is now almost certain to be sacked) has only spent a few days in Oporto in the course of the past two months. It is not difficult to see why the average Northerner (and two-thirds of the country's population lives north of the Tagus) is less than enthused about what has been going on in Lisbon: the North is a country of peasant smallholders, fiercely attached to their own plots, where life has not changed much in centuries and the main cultural and intellectual influence is still that of the Church.

Maybe Aristotle was right: agricultural societies are the least revolutionary: "An agricultural population makes the best citizens. For having no great abundance of wealth they are kept busy and rarely attend the assembly; and being constantly at work in the fields they do not lack the necessities. So they do not covet others' possessions." (Politics VI, iv). Eighteen months of Communist propaganda through the state-controlled broadcasting media have made no perceptible impact on the traditionalist Northern peasantry — and the AFM agitprop teams that had the temerity to visit their villages were sometimes chased away with pitchforks. There is a sense of community, transcending Marxist conceptions of class, that is all-important here — and is not to be found among the landless farm labourers of the Alentejo in the South where, predictably, the Marxist parties have found it easier to recruit supporters. There is no doubt about which parties hold real ascendancy in the North: they are the PPD and the CDS, which held an impressive rally at Povoa do Varzim last month where some 20,000 people turned out.

Talk of possible Northern secession unless there is a major change in Lisbon should be taken at least partly seriously. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at this stage, the North is ungovernable by the Marxist left. The garrisons are locally-recruited and mirror the views of the community as a whole, and the officer corps is markedly conservative; I was told how forty officers in the last week of August had allegedy slipped over the border into Spain to join the right-wing Portuguese Liberation Army (ELP). The frontiers with Spain are wide open, despite efforts by Communist militias and left-wing paramilitary groups like LUAR to block movement.

The ELP and the other groups that are now united under the umbrella of the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Portugal (MDLP), with which the ex-president, General Spihola, has identified himself, have set up an impressive infrastructure throughout the North which supplies the logistical base for a possible future attempt at a counter-coup. Their commando squads (in which ex-soldiers and ex-secret policemen from Angola are active) have mounted dramatically successful guerrilla operations, including the recent hijacking of a convoy of nine Communist vehicles bearing arms near Rio Major. They can count on reserves of up to 6,000 trained and armed men in Spain.

What is brewing up in the North might be likened to Vietcong-style 'people's war.' Many Northern villages are already under the de facto control of Vigilante committees. Leading Communist activities have been booted out; a number are said to have been assassinated, although the pro-Communist press in Lisbon has not breathed a word about it — perhaps for fear of frightening others. What remains in doubt is the political coherence of the popular upheavals and paramilitary organisations that are shifting the whole course of Portugal's revolution. The Northern revolt could help to bring about an intelligent conservative government within the framework of a democratic constitution; or it could help to bring' about a right-wing dictatorship. The choice will depend on how bitter and how protracted the struggle for power in Portugal proves to be, and on the capacity of democratic leaders to harness the forces that have now been unleashed.

The Portuguese left not only has to contend with the North; it has to contend with the flood of white settlers coming back from Angola.

They are now arriving at the rate of five thousand a day and by November 11 (when the territory is supposed to become independent) there will be about 365,000 of them in metropolitan Portugal. Huddled in their camps with a few boxes salvaged from their past lives, these people have no reason to be thankful to a government that they regard as directly responsible for the civil war in Angola. Senior civil servants from the former administration in Angola have brought back a mass of docu ments proving the full extent of that responsi bility — including evidence that in the time of the 'Red Admiral', Rosa Coutinho, the Portu guese government paid a handsome monthly subsidy to the pro-Soviet guerrilla movement, the MPLA.

No wonder that the Communists look on the mercy airlift of Angolan whites with a jaundiced eye. Their irruption into Portugal will shake the whole fabric of Portuguese society to a far greater degree than did the arrival of the pieds noirs from Algeria into France in the early 'sixties. The government cannot find them jobs, and will not succeed in sweeping the problem under the carpet by trying to pen the refugees into bleak camps isolated from the Portuguese community.

Then there is the little matter of the remnants of Portugal's shrunken empire — the Azores and Madeira. No one is in doubt that they can seize independence any day of the week, with the complicity of locally-recruited garrisons, and that the forces from the mainland would be highly unlikely to intervene. Such a gesture might provide offshore bases for the conservative opposition, which would then (for example) be able to set up a radio station. • These are some of the broader developments which are working against the left in Portugal.

Taken together, they may well provide the base for a return to right-wing government in Portugal before the end of the year. But this will hinge on the relative political skills of the leaders who represent a conservative alterr ative for Portugal and the Communists.

The Communists have experimented successfully with the 'Reichstag fire technique' in the past, and must be credited with some schemes for last-ditch resistance — possibly even entailing an assassination campaign against key anti-Communist leaders. Informed sources in Lisbon report the recent organisation of twelve-man commando teams assigned to different zones throughout the country, possibly for this purpose.

There have been recent signs of the build-up to a new Communist disinformation exercise, intended to discredit the 'fascist' opposition.

Conservative leaders in Oporto quoted the appearance of a leader of the PPM (a party that blends monarchism with radical socialism) on a BBC-2 news programme at the end of last month as an example. They alleged that the man in question — a PPM organiser in Braga who displayed his private arsenal and his face, in clear profile, while remaining anonymous — has long been a member of the Communist Party as well and that carefully orchestrated clisClosures of this kind are designed to set the stage for a new Reichstag fire episode. I have not been able to check this particular allegation, since it would imply that, on this occasion, the BBC was the unwitting accomplice in a black propaganda exercise. have certainly managed to muddy the image of Portugal's conservatives in much of the foreign press. The choice before Portugal is not necessarily between Marxism and the restoration of the ancien regime. A younger generation of intelligent conservative and liberal democrats have gained rapidly in experience stature over the past 18 months. Foremost among them are Professor Diogo Freitas do Amaral and Adelino Amaro da Costa, the president and secretary-general of the CDS and Sá Carneiro of the PPD. These are men who are firmly pledged to a democratic solution for Portugal, who could be trusted in government to bring about legislative elections next year

. and would probably be prepared to contem

plate a broader coalition with Socialists like Salgado Zenha, the former minister of justice who has proved himself a doughty and courageous anti-Communist. Most important, these are men (and there are not many of them in Lisbon) who would dispense with rhetorical effusions and get down to the business of sorting out the economy and restoring guarantees for private investment.

The possibility of a goverment of this centre-right tendency rests on the willingness of the armed forces to appoint a new president. The most promising candidate is General Carlos Galvao de Melo, the dashing air force officer who figured in the nine-man junta set up after the coup last year and now sits as a CDS delegate in the constituent assembly. Renowned for his fast cars, his horses, and his beautiful women, Galvao de Melo has shown an unexpected flair for public speaking and (more important) retains a strong personal constituency among the military — notably the air force, but his friends include some key army men, among them leaders of the AFM. Galvao de Melo talks optimistically about the coming political transformation in Portugal, perhaps over-optimistically. But then, he has been an optimist throughout, and events seem to have turned in his direction.

There are several other presidential 'possi bles,' with General Spihola, in Paris to confab with friends, the first among them. Most of these other retired military men, however, are identified with the traditional salazarist right in a way that Galvao de Melo is not. In the event of civil war or a violent counter-coup, this would not be a political defect — indeed, it might well represent a claim to legitimacy in the eyes of those Angolan settlers who have reason to bemoan the post-Salazar colonial policy. But it should be said at once that, whatever his remaining personal following, Spihola has already had the kind of opportunity that does not come twice — and, after the bungled putsch of March II organised by his supporters, the more capable conservatives inside Portugal are agreed that, the less that Spihola does, the better.

There is little doubt in my mind, after a recent return visit to Portugal, that a popular counter-revolution is in train that may well prove to be irreversible. Whether it will be chanelled into a pluralist or dictatorial course is still to be decided. But time seems to be running out for the Communists and their friends among those military men whom Northerners describe contemptuously as 'broiler-house generals' because of their rapid promotion. The country marked out by the Russians as the Cuba of Western Europe is slipping out of their clutches — because the Portuguese people themselves have refused to be pawns in that particular game.