Mário Soares (7 Dec 1924 – 7 Jan 2017)

OBITUARIES, 9 Jan 2017

John Hooper – The Guardian

Mário Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares, politician, born 7 December 1924; died 7 January 2017

Towering figure in Portuguese politics who was regarded as the father of his country’s modern democracy.

Mário Soares addressing the crowds in Lisbon in April 1975, a year after the carnation revolution that saw the overthrow of the dictator Marcelo Caetano.
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

8 Jan 2017 – Mário Soares, who has died aged 92, was an unlikely political giant. But by the time he stepped down from Portugal’s highest office in 1996, he had achieved something that is not guaranteed even to those few politicians who earn the title of statesman: he had come to be liked and admired by the entire nation.

Soares had a better claim than anyone to be regarded as the father of Portugal’s modern democracy. He had been a brave opponent of the dictatorships of António de Oliveira Salazar and Marcelo Caetano and, following the 1974 “revolution of flowers” or carnation revolution, became the first civilian to head an elected government in more than half a century. He could also justly claim to have prepared Portugal for entry into the European Union, though – to his enduring and bitter chagrin – he was not the man who actually took his country in.

Soares’s faults were those typical of a career politician – pride and a certain vindictiveness. Yet what slowly endeared him to his compatriots was a quality which, in a country less modest than Portugal, would perhaps have counted against him – his apparent ordinariness. He looked like a provincial shopkeeper and even at the height of his prestige never adopted that air of brusque condescension that so many of the powerful do. At an early stage in his career, Soares’s pudgy, nondescript features earned him the unflattering, but conspicuously appropriate nickname of “the Pumpkin”.

Mário Soares in 1984. His pudgy features earned him the unflattering nickname of ‘the Pumpkin’.
Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/AFP/Getty Images

On one occasion, I accompanied him on a visit to the site of a controversial dam in the remotest and poorest part of the north of Portugal. It was a chilly day and he had chosen to wear a ridiculous hat of the sort you might expect to see on a middle-aged dog-walker. Steadily, though, his stature emerged. He talked to everybody – not just to the executives from the electricity company, or the environmentalists and archaeologists who wanted the dam stopped, but to the local teachers and their pupils too. He stayed for hours, till it was numbingly cold and almost dark. And it was not until after he had listened fully to the earnest views of some sixth-formers who had come to the site of their own accord that he was ready to get back in his limousine for the journey to the glorious palace in which Portuguese heads of state live on the banks of the Tagus.

Soares was born in Lisbon, son of Elisa Nobre and João Lopes Soares. His father, a lawyer, had been a minister in the First Republic. The young Mário, who also became a lawyer after studies at the Sorbonne, gave his earliest political allegiance to the Communist party, which he joined when he was 19 and a student of philosophy and history at the University of Lisbon. The second world war was at its height. The civil war in Spain was a recent memory. It was still possible, particularly on the Iberian peninsula, to see international communism primarily as a bulwark against fascism.

Mário Soares with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph: Joao Paulo Trindade/EPA

Soares soon became disillusioned, nonetheless. Five years later, he had left the Communist party, though he continued to work as a leftwinger for the overthrow of the dictatorship. He paid dearly for his commitment. By the time Salazar was removed from office after a stroke in 1968, he had spent 12 years in prison, been tortured more than once and was living in forced exile on the island colony of São Tomé off the West African coast.

When Caetano succeeded as head of state later that year, keen to court international opinion, one of his first gestures was to allow Soares to return. In October 1969, parliamentary elections of a sort were held and Soares took part at the head of a socialist grouping, the CEUD (the Electoral Coalition for Democratic Unity). He and his followers were subject to numerous restrictions during the campaign, and it soon became clear that Portugal’s totalitarian system was substantially intact. A year later, Soares went into exile again, but this time as a refugee rather than as a deportee. He spent the next four years lecturing in French universities.

After the revolutionary coup which overthrew Caetano in April 1974, Soares returned in triumph. From the outset, he was seen internationally as the country’s foremost democratic, civilian politician. Between June 1974 and March 1975, he was foreign minister in the provisional military government and, as such, he was responsible for initiating the policy under which Portugal divested itself of its colonies. At the general election in April, the Socialist party emerged as by far the largest in a new Constituent Assembly. But it was the communists, supported and encouraged by several of the officers who had deposed Caetano, who began taking over the country, infiltrating the press, civil service and trade unions.

After trying unsuccessfully to stem their advance by means of a pact, Soares decided to lead his followers out of government and into a nationwide campaign in defence of Portugal’s reborn democracy. It was the turning point in the protracted carnation revolution (so-called because flowers were placed in soldiers’ rifles to mark the end of the dictatorship) and arguably his greatest achievement.

Mário Soares with Nelson Mandela in 1997. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Largely as a result, moderate officers were able to reassert themselves within the Armed Forces Movement and the cabinet. At the general election of April 1976, the Socialist party again topped the polls, though without an overall majority. Soares was asked to head the country’s first non-provisional government since the revolution and, in his moment of greatest triumph, he made his greatest mistake. In what Soares himself later admitted was an unwise move, he rejected a coalition. His minority administration was condemned to make ad hoc deals with one or more of the opposition parties to see through each item of legislation and soon showed itself to be incapable of taking the stringent and consistent measures needed to put the country to rights after two years of revolutionary upheaval.

In December 1977, Soares quit, only to be asked to form another government. This time, he chose to ally with the rightwing – misleadingly entitled – Democratic Social Centre (CDS). The gap in outlook between the two parties soon made the arrangement unworkable and in July 1978 the CDS withdrew its support. Soares did not resign immediately and was sacked by President Ramalho Eanes, formerly one of the moderate officers whose position the Socialist leader had done so much to reinforce. It was a move that caused ill-feeling between the two men for years afterwards.

The late 1970s and early 80s saw Soares’s career dip to its low-water mark. Portugal was governed, first, by non-party prime ministers, and then by the so-called Democratic Alliance of the country’s three main right-of-centre parties, which had triumphed in the 1979 general election. In 1981, Soares had to endure intense criticism from leftwingers in his party for backing plans to revise the revolutionary constitution.

Two years later, after the collapse of the Democratic Alliance, his fortunes revived when the Socialists again emerged from a general election as the largest political force, though yet again without a majority in parliament. Soares’s third government was underwritten by a loose alliance with the Social Democratic party (PSD), another misleadingly named group which had tried to disguise its free market inclinations by adopting a leftish-sounding title during the revolution.

Mário Soares giving a speech during his election campaign of 2006. Photograph: Reuters

In 1985, the delegates at a PSD leadership convention astonished themselves and pretty much everyone else by handing the party to an unknown economics professor, Aníbal Cavaco Silva. He was to be the cause of the second of Soares’s two great political grudges. Almost immediately after taking over his party, Cavaco Silva scrapped the alliance with the Socialists and forced an election at which the PSD won the right to form a minority administration. It was thus the PSD leader who took Portugal into the EU the following year – a bitter blow for Soares.

Long before his counterparts in Spain had shifted their focus away from Third World socialism, Soares had had it clear in his mind that his party’s task would be to prepare Portugal for membership of an alliance which, however capitalistic, would help consolidate its fragile democracy. As far back as the 1976 general election, he had campaigned largely on a platform of Portugal in Europe.

After his removal from government, in 1986 Soares decided to run for the presidency. In retrospect, it can be seen as the end of his career as an active politician. But at the time the presidency seemed anything but an honorific post. It carries the power to dissolve parliament and for years, while Portugal was run by a string of weak, minority and coalition governments that power made the head of state a more authoritative figure than any mere prime minister. When he topped the ballot, Soares could have been forgiven for believing he had leapfrogged the man who had ousted him from government. But in 1987, Cavaco Silva went back to the country and secured the first of two outright parliamentary majorities which not only gave Portugal a decade of much-needed stability but also severely limited the political role and clout of the president.

However resentful Soares felt, he never let his bitterness cloud his judgment or warp his conduct. He did not give in to the temptation to obstruct the PSD’s legislation, even though much of it was radically at odds with his own conception of society. That too was a reason why Cavaco Silva took the remarkable decision not to have Soares opposed when he stood for re-election in 1991.

From 1999 until 2004 he served as a member of the European parliament, and in 2006 made an unsuccessful bid for a further term as president of Portugal.

His wife, the actor Maria Barroso, whom he married in prison in 1949, died in 2015. He is survived by their son, João, and daughter, Isabel.


John Hooper is a former Guardian and Observer foreign correspondent and author of The Italians and The New Spaniards.

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