Interest Groups

Portugal Table of Contents

Despite the flourishing of democracy since 1974, interest groups were not a significant force in Portugal. Portuguese politics were pluralist but to a lesser degree than in many other countries, especially when compared with the United States. Whereas the United States had over 50,000 interest groups functioning in Washington alone as of the early 1990s, the number functioning in Portugal was probably less than 100.

Armed Forces

The armed forces in Portugal traced their origins back to the armies and military orders of medieval times. The orders were often autonomous from the state, and, because they were formed during the reconquest, may have predated it. Hence, the armed forces came to be thought of--and thought of themselves--as a separate unit in society, independent of any civil authority and perhaps above it. Even at the beginning of the 1990s, the military still had to some extent this sense of aloofness and of ideals of a higher order.

The military was long the ultimate arbiter of Portuguese national politics. The armed forces were drawn into the chaotic, man-on-horseback politics of the nineteenth century. Military cum civilian factions "rotated" (rotativismo) out of national politics with frequent regularity. The armed forces helped usher in the Portuguese Republic in 1910 and ended it in 1926. The military brought Salazar to power and served as an indispensable prop of his dictatorship.

It was the armed forces that overthrew Caetano in 1974 and the MFA that launched the revolution. The MFA took pains to retain special powers by creating the Council of the Revolution, which guaranteed the armed forces the power to prohibit legislation that they saw as harmful to the revolution's democratic achievements. The military agreed, however, that these powers were to be of limited duration.

During the 1980s, the political and social roles of the armed forces diminished. The 1982 constitutional amendments reduced the military's political power by abolishing the Council of the Revolution, thereby ending the military's guardianship over Portuguese politics. The National Defense Law of 1982 put the military completely under civilian control. In addition, the armed forces were significantly reduced in size and budget. On the other hand, Portuguese officers became better educated, more technologically sophisticated, and more professionalized.

By the beginning of the 1990s, the Portuguese armed forces had a social role similar to that of armed forces in other West European countries. Only extreme events could possibly pull Portugal's soldiers back into politics, although like any other interest group they did lobby to protect their interests, benefits, budget, and position in society.

Roman Catholic Church

Like the armed forces, the Roman Catholic Church in Portugal had also declined in influence during the 1980s. The church, along with the military, had been one of the historical corporate units in society, long predating the state and existing parallel to it. As a result, Portugal was historically a Roman Catholic nation. Roman Catholicism was not only the sole religion of the country, but Roman Catholic beliefs also permeated the culture, the legal system, the society, and the polity. Salazar derived many of his corporatist beliefs from the papal encyclicals, and during his long rule the church served as an indispensable pillar of the regime.

In recent decades, however, the church came to play a lesser role in people's lives as society became more secularized. During the 1974-76 period, the church helped turn the population away from the appeals of communism and radicalism, but since those tumultuous years the church has been quiescent politically. The church has, however, expressed itself on some issues, such as the legalization of abortion, on which it felt morally obliged to take a public stance. Polls of Portuguese showed that the church's ranking among main interest groups had fallen from second- or third-most influential to seventh- or eighth-most influential.

Economic Elites

The "oligarchy" was the third of the historical triumvirate of power in Portugal (armed forces, church, and oligarchy) to be in decline. Many of the old oligarchical families traced their origins to the Reconquest. They acquired their land, position, and titles, and eventually peasants and cattle, as the Reconquest drove the Moors farther south, opening up new territories for settlement.

This oligarchy, armed with titles of nobility granted it by the royal family in return for loyalty, dominated Portuguese politics for centuries. But over time, its character changed. In the south of Portugal, the Alentejo, the landowning class became increasingly absentee landlords, leaving managers in charge of its estates and moving to Lisbon. In the north, where smallholdings predominated, many members of the oligarchy became impoverished--or went into businesses like wine making. During the reign of Salazar, members of the elite went into banking, insurance, construction, and similar fields in which they could establish oligopolies and monopolies based on their close ties with the government.

After the Revolution of 1974, this economic elite was stripped of power. Its properties were confiscated, many from the elite were jailed or sent into exile, and the group lost all political power. In addition, members of the elite were barred from participating in politics or from forming political movements of their own by means of the laws forbidding far-right political activity.

As of the beginning of the 1990s, most of the exiles had been permitted to return to Portugal, and those who had spent time in jail were freed. Some of the elite managed to regain their power by taking advantage of the economy's need for financial expertise. But the elite as a whole did not regain its old financial position. Its political influence remained limited, as well, and only one member of the old Salazar regime had been elected to parliament.

Organized Labor

Portuguese trade unionism had a history of militancy and radicalism. Its roots go back to the late nineteenth century when modern industry first appeared. The unions grew during the period of the First Republic, 1910-26, when they enjoyed freedom to organize. It was in this period that Marxist, Bolshevik, Trotskyite, anarchist, and syndicalist ideas were discussed and disseminated. Although the labor movement was small, a reflection of the low level of Portuguese industrialization, it was active and vocal.

During the Salazar-Caetano era, militant unions were abolished, and the labor movement was forcibly subordinated to corporatist controls. Many labor leaders were jailed or sent into exile. Some cooperated with the new corporative system; others organized a militant, communist-controlled underground labor organization. With time this union, Intersindical, was well enough established that the government actually dealt with it almost as if it were a legal bargaining agent.

During the Revolution of 1974, Intersindical, or as it came to be known in 1977, the General Confederation of Portuguese Workers-National Intersindical (Confederação Geral dos Trabalhadores Portugueses-Intersindical Nacional--CGTP-IN), was at last able to function as a legal labor organization, and it expanded rapidly. Controlled by the communists, CGTP-IN was closely associated with the PCP's bid for power and for a time was the only union permitted to function. Soon, however, it faced opposition from the socialist labor organization, the General Union of Workers (União Geral dos Trabalhadores--UGT). For a time, the communist labor group was overwhelmingly dominant, but during the 1980s the UGT grew in size, especially in the service sector, and by the end of the decade its overall membership was about half that of CGTP-IN. Many other small unions were active at the beginning of the 1990s, most notably those representing highly specialized professions such as airline pilots. There was also a Christian democratic trade union movement.

After 1974 organized labor emerged as a powerful force in Portuguese politics, although its influence waned somewhat after the revolutionary period. Union membership was not high, and as of the early 1990s only about 30 percent of the work force was unionized. The communist-led unions were not able to block the constitutional amendments of 1982 and 1989, which reduced the radical legacy of the revolution. Moreover, some unions backed away from the intense ideological unionism of the 1970s in favor of more limited and practical objectives.

Middle Class

Portugal was long an essentially two-class society consisting of elites and peasants, between which existed a small class of artisans, soldiers, and tradespeople. With the acceleration of industrialization and economic development since the 1950s, this middle class began to grow. It provided the strongest opposition to the Salazar-Caetano regime as it came to prefer democracy and a more open West European society. As a result, the middle class participated strongly in the Revolution of 1974 and the political maneuvering that followed. After the old elites were shunted aside by the revolution and labor organizations lost power the following decade, the middle class emerged as Portugal's most important class.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the middle class constituted some 25 to 30 percent of the population. The most important Portuguese institutions were middle class-dominated: the military officer corps, the Roman Catholic Church, political parties, public administration, the universities, and commerce and industry.

The middle class remained divided on many social and political issues, however. For example, political leadership in Portugal was solidly middle class and spanned all parties from the far left to the far right. The success of the PSD under Cavaco Silva both in parliament and in the election of 1987 was perhaps an indication that Portugal's new socially significant middle class was developing a degree of social cohesion.

The commercial segment of the middle class defended its interests through the PSD and the CDS and also through some large representative organizations. The leading organizations of this type were the Portuguese Industrial Association (Associação Industrial Portuguesa--AIP), founded in 1860, the much larger Confederation of Portuguese Industry (Confederação da Indústria Portuguesa--CIP), founded in 1974, and the Portuguese Confederation of Commerce (Confederação do Comércio Português-- CCP), founded in 1977. These organizations, and others like them, met with important labor groups and with government officials and lobbied behind the scenes to better the conditions under which Portugal's new middle class had to work.

Students and Intellectuals

Students and intellectuals in Portugal were long influential out of proportion to their numbers. This influence was a consequence of higher education's exclusivity. The small percentage of the population who passed the difficult university entrance exams was widely respected, and Portugal's lower classes looked up to educated persons as their intellectual and political mentors.

Intellectuals and students were among the leading advocates of a republic in 1910. Although hostile to the republic, Salazar was also an intellectual and recruited so many of his fellow university colleagues into his administration that it was sometimes called a "regime of professors." Much of the opposition to Salazar and Caetano was made up of intellectuals and students who formed the "study groups" that served as the nuclei for what later became political parties. Intellectuals and students were very active in the Revolution of 1974, and, as of the beginning of the 1990s, many intellectuals served in high positions in government and the political parties.

Universities in Portugal were traditionally heavily politicized, especially during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1970s. Socialist, communist, and other far-left groups competed for dominance on the campuses (mainly at the historical universities in Lisbon and Coimbra) and in publishing houses, newspapers, and study centers where intellectuals congregated.

Rising enrollment pressures, the competition of new regional universities and technical institutes, and the desire to find good jobs in the more affluent Portugal of the 1980s sapped the students' enthusiasm for political action. Many preferred to finish their courses and degrees and secure a rewarding professional position rather than to engage in constant political activity. As a result, Portugal's institutions of higher learning became calmer politically; they also became better, more serious universities.


Peasants were long the neglected and forgotten people of Portuguese politics. Although the largest group numerically, they were the weakest politically. Nonparticipation was encouraged by Salazar's strategy of keeping the peasants illiterate and apathetic.

The peasants comprised a variety of groups. A basic distinction exists between the conservative peasants of the north who own their small plots of land, and the peasants of the south who have no land, live under conditions of tenancy, and have been receptive to the appeals of radical political groups. The PCP, for example, had quietly organized southern peasants under its banner even during the Salazar era. During and after the Revolution of 1974, the south, especially the Alentejo, was a hotbed of land seizures, radical political action, and strong voting preferences for the PCP.

Since the revolution, however, both the PS and the PSD have made electoral inroads into what were PCP strongholds in the south. The rural areas were once again to some degree depoliticized , although the countryside would never return to the quiescence of decades past, despite the large numbers of farmers and agrarian laborers who migrated to urban areas or went abroad.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress