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  • The Democratic Invention
  • Mário Soares (bio)

On 25 April 1999, Portuguese democracy will commemorate its twenty-fifth anniversary. Our country accomplished a successful transition to democracy whose importance has been recognized world-wide. According to Samuel P. Huntington’s famous formulation, it was the Portuguese revolution that set in motion “the third wave” of democratization that subsequently spread to every corner of the globe. Portugal managed to pass through the initial revolutionary stage of its transition without shedding any blood, and eventually to abide by the people’s will as expressed through free elections. Although the preceding dictatorship had lasted for almost 50 years and was often ruthless and merciless, retaliation and political trials were avoided. The need for a policy of “national reconciliation” was widely recognized, and it yielded the best possible results. Today Portugal has a fully developed democracy that enjoys political and social stability and broad popular support. The Portuguese democratic transition had a positive impact on Spain, on Latin America, and on the Portuguese-speaking African countries, with whom our country has particularly friendly relations today.

Portugal is currently a full and active member of the European Union. Though it still bears some marks of its longtime structural backwardness, the country has largely managed to catch up with its neighbors [End Page 105] in terms of development, while preserving the social and human dimensions of economic life. Our current priority is education. The path on which Portugal is moving today is unprecedented in the centuries-old history of our country.

As an old fighter against dictatorship, I belong to a generation that learned from experience the value of democracy and the importance of liberty, a generation that knows what it means to be subject to dictatorship and deprived of basic human rights. We internalized the terrible experience of decades of random violence, imposed colonial wars, arrests and deportation to concentration camps, censorship and thought control, and discrimination and persecution of every kind, with all possible pathways of personal fulfillment utterly closed to citizens who did not align themselves with official policy.

This painful experience of almost half a century makes it a moral imperative for us to fight, day after day, to perfect our democracy. We view democracy as a frail and precious flower that needs care and permanent vigilance. We feel compelled to share our experience with the younger generations, so that they can understand that life without freedom makes no sense.

Democracy requires civic education and the possession of knowledge, for it needs free and aware citizens at every level of decision making. That is why we have been trying to convey to the generations born after the end of dictatorship the importance of civic participation. It is not sufficient to repeat the ritual of elections and to ensure that they are freely held, freely contested, and freely supervised. Voting constitutes a civic duty, but democracy requires more. Respect for the rights of minorities must be ensured, along with the rule of law. The laws must be obeyed by everyone, but above all by those who are temporarily entrusted with public office by their fellow citizens. Only if it meets these requirements can democracy preserve pluralism, secure alternation in power, and enable civil society to breathe freely. Democratic political institutions should include checks and balances, leaving room for citizens to play an active role through political parties, trade unions, and employers’ associations, while encouraging their participation in every possible form of association.

Democracy also requires a prestigious, independent justice system, administered with despatch and discretion, whose honesty and impartiality are acknowledged by the people. A word of warning, however, must be addressed to those who seek to promote a “Republic of Magistrates” (as was attempted in Italy) to punish the corrupt without eliminating corruption. They should realize that to hinder the exercise of legitimate political power is also to impair the functioning of democracy.

Freedom of the press, in the broadest possible sense, is a sine qua non of democracy. A controlled press means the absence of democratic pluralism. But as a rule-based regime, democracy demands a high [End Page 106] sense of responsibility and strict standards; otherwise it is in danger...

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pp. 105-112
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