The man who wasn’t Kerensky

The Russian revolution began in February 1917; the old regime led by the czar collapsed and was replaced by a provisional government. The period after was one of great social and political instability. Alexander Kerensky was one of the most notorious politicians of this revolutionary period; he was minister of justice of the first provisional government and he led the second provisional government from July to November. The Kerensky government was in the end overthrown by the bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin during the October Revolution.

Soares with the foreign minister of Great Britain – James Callaghan with whom he negotiated British support for democratic forces during a possible civil war.

The fate of Kerensky was brought up again 58 years later by United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger comparing the Russian politician to Mário Soares.  The geopolitical situation of this time was completely different but there were some similarities. The context relates to the heat of the Carnation revolution in Portugal in 1975 (which marked the transition from the  conservative dictatorship to a liberal democracy). It was the middle of the cold war. At the time, Portugal was in a turbulent period; most of the economy was nationalized, for land reform reasons agricultural lands were expropriated from landowners, worker comissions took over factories, there was a siege in the parliament, the embassy of Spain was assaulted and riot and fights in the streets were common. The American administration followed the situation very carefully, and put their hopes in Mário Soares just as all Western Europe back then, to counter the communists trying to grab power. It’s in this intense environment that Kissinger said that Soares was naive and weak and that the communists were going to push Soares to the left until he lost the support of the moderates and then he would probably get killed by them, calling him the European Kerensky.

Despite the negative expectation, Soares made sure Portugal evolved into a Modern and Liberal Democracy and was praised all over the political spectrum. Soares later said that he was the only Menshevik to beat a bolshevik.

Soares in 1975

Mário Soares was born in Lisbon, his father owned a private school and was a minister in a government of the First Portuguese Republic. Although he could have had a comfortable life, Soares started getting involved in the opposition of the dictatorship from a young age. Despite being expended and exiled from the country, and even being tortured and imprisoned 12 times in 32 years, he never gave up. He even married in jail with his longtime companion, Maria de Jesus, who also was active in the opposition. During his time living abroad, he cultivated friendships with important Socialist and Social Democratic Leaders like Olaf Palme and François Miterrand. He also  founded the Socialist Party in 1973, in Germany, under the umbrella of the SPD and his friend, Willy Brandt.

Someone such as resilient as him cannot be as weak or naive as Kissinger suggested. Later on he admitted he was wrong to his admnistration and in his memories where he acknowledged that Soares contributed positevely to the development of Portugal.

Soares arrested

His life as a politician was as combative as his life as an activist. As leader of the socialist party, he won the constituency assembly election in 1975 and the legislative election in 1976 that made him prime minister for a little more than 2 years. He lost the two subsequent elections but won the 1983 legislative election. He never ran away from a political challenge, even when the situation was calamitous like when he first was elected prime minister after the revolutionary period. The inflation was above 20% and after 4 years governing with a center right coalition the deficit had grown to 10%. Soares had to ask the IMF for assistance. Also, as prime minister he oversaw the implementation of the National Health Service and Portugal’s candidacy to join the European Union.

In 1986, after leaving office, he decided to run for presidency. No one gave him any chance. The first polls gave him a little more than 8% of the vote. He was unpopular because of the reforms and some austerity measures he had to implement as prime minister between 1983-1985. He ended up winning in the second round in a very narrow election. After becoming President he never resigned from public and political life as expected. He was member of the European parliament from 1999 to 2004 and he was a candidate to the Presidency again in 2006 with 80 years old. He lost the last one. During the period of austerity in Portugal, he organized popular assemblies in which he invited people from different ideologies and backgrounds to discuss alternatives and when he was 89 years old, he celebrated his anniversary in a protest with workers of a public shipyard company that was about to be privatized.

Above all, Soares was always present during Portugal’s most important moments. The fight against the right wing dictatorship, the fight against the possible communist dictatorship, the transition for democracy and defending European integration when he almost single handedly convinced the public opinion about the necessity of European integration in a time when Portuguese people were suspicious of the European Union.

Soares will go down in history as belonging to a class of politicians that is now, nearly extinct. A type of leader who can engage crowds and countries, who isn’t afraid of defending an unpopular political position, who isn’t afraid to enter the elections regardless of the polls, and who despite being born in an elitist environment was always comfortable with common people and crowds.

André Branco Pereira, Law Student



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