Civil Society, Europe, Headlines

PORTUGAL: Salazar ‘Greatest Portuguese Ever’, TV Viewers Say

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Mar 30 2007 (IPS) - News media and academic circles in Portugal are vying with each other to explain why the public chose former dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968) in a poll on state television channel RTP as “The Greatest Portuguese Who Ever Lived.”

Economic problems, unemployment and the lack of opportunities, frequent corruption scandals and Portugal’s laggard position in terms of development in Europe are the most commonly cited reasons for the number of votes for Salazar, the major figure in the 48-year-long dictatorship (1926-1974) which was overthrown by leftwing army captains on Apr. 25, 1974.

“Great Portuguese”, a television programme based on the BBC show “Great Britons” which has inspired similar shows in several other countries, was aired on the night of Mar. 25 and ended in the early hours of Monday Mar. 26. Audience votes gave Oliveira Salazar a comfortable win at 41 percent, followed by the late communist leader Álvaro Cunhal, with 19 percent.

Historian and former parliamentary deputy José Pacheco Pereira told the newspaper Público de Lisboa on Tuesday that he was not surprised at the result, “because the programme format encouraged the mobilisation of vocal supporters of either Salazar or Cunhal, who in a way personify the divisions among Portuguese in the 20th century.”

The 10 finalists also included Admiral Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) who discovered the sea route to India, King Alfonso Henríques, the 12th century founder of the nation, 15th century King João II, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), Sebastião José de Carvalho de Melo (regent of Portugal in the 18th century), the poets Luiz Vaz de Camoes (1524-1580) and Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), and Arístides de Sousa Mendes (1885-1954), who as consul in France saved the lives of thousands of Jews in the Second World War.

How is it possible that the founder of the authoritarian “New State” (1933-1974), the longest-lived European dictatorship of the 20th century, was preferred by such a margin to the greatest figures of Portugal’s rich history?

José Rebelo, professor of sociology of information and vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights in Portugal, gave IPS one possible answer.

The result does not reflect a desire to go back to a dictatorship like Salazar’s, because “it wasn’t a uniform vote for Salazar, but a mixture of different votes for Salazar, with different intentions which ranged from voting for him to express disenchantment with present-day politics, to voting out of a sense of rebellion or defiance, or even as a provocation,” he said.

“A contest is just a contest. One could easily argue that the members of the audience who decided to participate weren’t a sociologically representative sample. It’s all true, but when over 40 percent of the thousands of votes received by RTP demonstrate a preference for Salazar, it’s food for thought,” he said.

Adelino Gomes, the chief editor of Público said, “Everyone is saying that Salazar won a contest, not an election, but some people talk of ‘the symbolic death of Apr. 25’ when they see the dictator’s resounding victory over great kings, explorers, poets and politicians from throughout our history.”

In the TV poll they were all left standing by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, a professor at the University of Coimbra who was invited to become finance minister by the military dictatorship that overthrew the republican government in 1926. Salazar, who lived 1889-1970, assumed full power and became the regime’s strongman.

At a time when politics was carried on with pistols on the table, Salazar’s political project, the New State, had a corporatist economic structure, and was the first to be clearly inspired by the doctrines of the Catholic Church as defined in the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

In 1930 Salazar founded the National Union party, inspired by Benito Mussolini who had ruled Italy since 1922. In 1932 he assumed the presidency of the Council of Ministers. His regime was intended to supercede liberal democracy.

Enjoying unrestricted power, he created the International State Defence Police (PIDE), banned any opposition, and in spite of international pressure insisted on maintaining a worn out empire which included colonies in Africa (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Sao Tomé and Príncipe) and Asia (Goa, Diu, Daman, Macao and East Timor), under the motto “Proudly Alone.”

Salazar’s first major international defeat was at the hands of India in 1961, when then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dispatched an overwhelming force to retake the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Daman and Diu. The Portuguese military garrisons received peremptory orders from Lisbon to defeat the invaders or die in the attempt.

The inevitable surrender by the governor of Portuguese India, General Antonio Vassalo e Silva, was the spark that detonated independence wars in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique which resulted in thousands killed on either side, and ended when the leftist captains wrested power from Marcello Caetano (1968-1974), Salazar’s successor in Lisbon.

The dictatorship’s dark record included thousands of people who were tortured by the PIDE, and more who were transported to concentration camps in Africa and East Timor.

Augusto Vilela, a journalist closely connected with Diario de Lisboa, the only newspaper that held out untamed against the regime, told IPS that the choice of the old dictator as the greatest Portuguese who ever lived “by public vote organised by the state television channel, brought shame upon the programme directors and on the political authorities who allowed it.”

“It was repulsive to democratic sectors, while it caused carefully concealed satisfaction among the right, who have been patiently biding their time since the 1974 revolution,” he said.

What happened is part of a phenomenon involving “a significant number of media outlets all over the world, especially television channels, that are directed by persons of no intellectual stature or integrity, without principles or values, who are merely gangmasters of their reporters and purveyors of infotainment shows,” he said.

Visao Online weekly columnist Miguel Carvalho said that all the complaints and bitter comments he had heard on the street from taxi-drivers, bus and train passengers led him to think that the Portuguese chose Salazar “out of revenge,” because of the dire situation in the country.

“Portuguese people have a strange mentality. They bite their tongues and rarely speak out directly. But since they spend all day and all night in front of the television, I think they slyly took up their remote controls and chose Salazar, who was conveniently at hand, as a sort of coded protest, using the old tyrant to symbolise the many petty ‘little Salazars’ that make their lives miserable today,” Carvalho concluded.

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