Saturday 7 January 2017
Soares founded the Portuguese Socialist Party in April 1973 with the help of former German chancellor Willy Brandt. One of his biggest political dreams was that Portugal would join the European Union. He fulfilled it.
There have been few people like Mario Soares in modern politics. He belonged to a generation of statesmen including Olof Palme, Francois Mitterrand and Willy Brandt. Soares shook hands with all of them, and was certainly a controversial figure. But no one in Portugal would deny that he was one of the country’s most influential politicians of the 20th century.
The former Portuguese president had been admitted to a Lisbon hospital in December and subsequently slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. He died Saturday at the age of 92, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Born into politics
Soares was born December 7, 1924, and grew up surrounded by politics.
His father, a former priest-turned-minister for colonies during the First Portuguese Republic, fiercely opposed fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Soares grew up close to some of the most influential opposition thinkers of the age, including members of the Portuguese Communist Party, which was fighting Salazar underground. After joining their ranks for a while, he later followed a different path, choosing to support democratic socialism.
The Portuguese political police, PIDE, arrested him 12 times for subversive conduct, and eventually forced him out of the country. First, he was deported to Sao Tome and Principe, which was still a Portuguese colony. But he still managed to spin the story in his favor, telling a journalist later that he flew first class to the African country, enjoyed dinner on the plane and smoked a cigar after. That was in 1968. Two years later he was forced into exile in France.
German help against communism
In 1973, Soares founded the Socialist Party in the West German town of Bad Münstereifel. German Chancellor Willy Brandt aided him – his Social Democratic Party (SPD) was willing to finance the new Portuguese party in order to ensure that Portugal did not fall into communist hands after Salazar’s dictatorship fell apart in 1974.
“The Social Democrats helped prevent a new dictatorship in Portugal,” Brandt said in 1976.
By then, all Portuguese colonies had declared independence. Soares took part in the decolonization process, representing the Portuguese government.
Many criticized him for dealing mostly with African liberation movements that had close political ties to Moscow. He was also criticized for the way he handled the return of 500,000 “retornados” – Portuguese citizens who fled after the colonies’ independence. Many of them left almost all of their possessions behind.
In a 2013 interview with DW, Soares defended the decision, saying that at that stage there was no time to lose. “We had to move fast,” he said. Portugal had been at war with the colonies for 13 years because “Salazar and his follower, Marcello Caetano, didn’t understand how important it was to decolonize in peace. And I faced difficulties in some European countries. People asked me: ‘Do you really want to decolonize in such a short amount of time?’ I answered that I did.”
“I was heavily criticized,” he said, noting that many people complained the government hadn’t done enough. “Those who returned never understood how lucky they were. They never understood. They came back to Portugal under difficult conditions. That is true. They got scared and ran away. We found a solution for them, and gave them everything. We gave them money, houses.”
Politics until the end
Soares was elected as prime minister in 1976 and again in 1983. One of his dearest political ambitions was to take Portugal out of international seclusion and join the European Economic Community (EEC), the predecessor to the EU.
“Portugal has a European vocation,” he told DW. “Fascist dictatorships are disappearing in Europe. The Greeks did it as well as the Portuguese. If the country wouldn’t follow that movement, it would be isolated. And that would compromise a rapid growth.”
Soares became president in 1986, the same year that Portugal formally entered the EEC. He served for 10 years, and then moved on to Strasbourg, where he served as a member of the European Parliament. In 2006, he ran for a third term as president, but finished third in the voting. He was 81 years-old.
He accepted the results with “democratic fair play and a sense of responsibility.”
After that, he slowly distanced himself from active participation in political life.
At the same time, he sharpened his criticism, particularly after the Socialists’ rival party, the Social Democratic Party of Pedro Passos Coelho, came to power.
“This government is destroying us completely,” Soares said in 2013. He was against a repayment of the country’s international bailout, following an economic crisis.
“Argentina had a similar crisis and refused to pay. Nothing happened. They evolved. So why pay? So that plutocrats will get the money without moving a finger, with extreme interest rates? Is that acceptable? It is not.”
A famous Portuguese political analyst, Jose Pacheco Pereira, wrote then that Soares took socialism out of a drawer where he had stored it many years before. After all, the Portuguese statesman had also asked for two IMF bailouts in the 1970s and 1980s.
In 2014, Soares refused to go to the parliament and participate in the official celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the “Carnation Revolution” that toppled the dictatorship in Portugal. Instead, in clear defiance, he joined the military officers who started the revolution in April 1974. “For Portuguese people, it’s perfectly normal that I’m here and not in the parliament,” Soares told a journalist. A huge crowd surrounded him in the streets of Lisbon.