Mário Soares (born 1924) was the first socialist president of Portugal and a long-time opponent of the right-wing Salazar regime.
Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares was born in Lisbon on December 7, 1924. As a young boy he was greatly influenced by his father, a militant republican who spent considerable time in prison, in exile, or in hiding for his political activism. In the mid-1930s Soares' father started a private school, the Colégio Moderno, that reflected his deep-seted republican and liberal views. The young Soares subsequently lived and attended classes at this well-known private high school in Portugal. Later, Mário Soares attended the Classical University of Lisbon, where he became a student leader opposed to the right-wing authoritarian government of the day. In time he earned degrees in history, philosophy, and law, which, along with the influence of his father, prepared him well for his future role as one of Portugal's leading political activists.
For most of his adult life Mário Soares was an opponent of the fascist government of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968), which had come to power after a military government overthrow of the Portuguese Republic in 1926. Both Salazar's so-called "New State" and the six-year successor regime of Marcello Caetano (1968-1974) drew the opposition of Mário Soares. By the time the dictatorship fell in 1974 Soares had been jailed 12 times on political grounds, banished for almost one year to the former Portuguese territory of Sâo Tomé, and exiled for four years to France (1970-1974). Soares, however, was implacable. As one of his close friends stated: "Nothing gets him down. He is an optimist. He is a fighter…." One noteworthy act of defiance performed by Soares was his prison wedding to Maria Barroso, an actress he had met at the university. She later headed the Colégio Moderno founded by Soares' father.
Soares' political fortunes rose with the emergence of the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP). First founded in 1875, it was strongly suppressed with the rise of Salazar's dictatorship. However, in 1964 Soares and his allies played a leading role in founding the Portuguese Socialist Action, which led to the clandestine reconstruction of the PSP in the early 1970s. In 1969 Soares represented Portugal at the 11th congress of the Socialist International in Eastbourne. Following this congress he came to know many of the leading European socialists in the late 1960s and early 1970s; among them were Olaf Palme of Sweden, Willy Brandt of West Germany, and Bruno Kreisky of Austria. During his long exile in France he also became a close acquaintance of François Mitterrand.
Due in part to the protracted rebellion in Portugal's African colonies (Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea) and the general state of the economy, young military officers overthrew the Caetano regime on April 25, 1974. Known as the Armed Forces Movement, the new leadership chose General Antonio de Spinola as the head of a new government that pledged to restore democracy to Portugal. When Soares returned to his country from Paris, he was quickly mobbed by thousands of his admirers. In the first military-controlled government following the overthrow Soares served as foreign minister and oversaw the granting of independence to the African colonies. In elections to a constituent assembly in April of 1975 Soares' PSP emerged as Portugal's strongest party, winning 116 seats out of 250.
The year 1975 proved to be a crucial year for the "Portuguese Revolution" and the political career of Mário Soares. Following the radicalization of the Armed Forces Movement, influenced by the Moscow line of the Communist Party of Portugal, Soares was compelled to resign as foreign minister, and in July he quit the government altogether and called for rallies and demonstrations against the Communists. Increased Communist influence in the government as well as an unsuccessful coup attempt by Spinola eventually motivated a moderate military faction in the Armed Forces Movement backed by Soares to call for elections in 1976. Soares' PSP won these elections with approximately 35 percent of the vote, winning 107 of the 263 seats in a new assembly. Soares then became Portugal's first constitutionally elected prime minister since the revolution of 1974 and served in this office from 1976 to 1978. In 1976, too, Soares was elected vice-president of the Socialist International.
Soares' popularity and that of his party, however, declined in the following years due to austerity measures that the government imposed in order to obtain a loan from the International Monetary Fund. The representation of Soares' PSP in parliament dropped to 74 seats in the 1979 elections and to 66 seats in the 1980 elections. Defections from the PSP and the party's declining political fortunes at the polls influenced Soares to resign as secretary general of the Socialist Party in 1979. One year later, however, he resumed his duties as leader of the PSP.
By 1983 the popularity of the PSP was on the rise once again. Soares' effective opposition politics may be partially credited for this renewal. In the April 1983 elections the PSP won 36 percent of the vote and 101 seats in parliament; it subsequently formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party. Following the 1983 elections Soares was appointed to his former position as prime minister. However, in the October 1985 elections he and his party suffered a humiliating defeat, winning only 20 percent of the vote.
Nevertheless, Soares decided to run in the 1986 presidential elections, and four months later defeated the conservative candidate Diogo Freitas do Amaral by 151,000 votes. Soares thus became Portugal's first civilian president in 60 years. His tenacity and superior debating skills contributed to this victory. At the end of Soares' five-year term in 1991, his popularity was such that he was faced with only token opposition, and was easily re-elected, taking 70% of the popular vote. In 1996, socialist candidate Jorge Sampaio was elected to succeed Soares, who had to give up the presidency after two consecutive terms.
Soares played a primary role in engineering the entry of Portugal into the European Economic Community (1986). His goal was to modernize Portugal's economy, the most backward in Western Europe, and to tie his nation closer to Western states. Portugal's integration into the economy of Western Europe strengthened the economy of Soares' country and stabilized the Portuguese political system. At home, Soares instituted popular informal town meetings with the citizens, and he rarely interefered with the work of the cabinet or legislature.
Perhaps the most distinguished characteristic of Mário Soares as a politician was his ability to rebound after a loss. "There are victories and defeats in politics," he was quoted as saying after his 1986 presidential victory, "and what is necessary is to maintain your convictions, to keep battling."
For a sympathetic account of Soares' life see Hans Janitschek's Mário Soares: Portrait of a Hero (1985). Two excellent studies of contemporary Portugal are found in Walter C. Opello, Jr.'s Portugal: From Monarchy to Pluralist Democracy (1991), and in Eric Solsten, ed., Portugal: A Country Study (Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993). □