Portuguese history at a glance

Portugal became an independent kingdom in 1135. Like Spain, the early Portuguese nation building consisted of military retrieval (Reconquista) of the southern areas occupied by the Moors. A decisive factor in the maintenance of Portugal’s independence was the alliance with England, formalized in 1386. The Portuguese Empire was the earliest and longest living colonial power of Western Europe. In 1415, Ceuta (on the northern African coast) was captured, and shortly afterwards were the islands of Madeira and the Azores discovered and colonized. In 1498, Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India. During the following decades, Portugal established colonies in Africa, Asia and the Southern Americas and consolidated its position as one of Europe's leading trading powers. From 1580 to 1640 Portugal was part of a dynastic union with Spain and hence became part of the Habsburg Empire.

In 1822 a constitutional monarchy was installed in Portugal. The new king's annulment of the constitution sparked off the Liberal Wars (1828-1834) in which the authoritarian absolutists were defeated by the progressive constitutionalists. The October Revolution of 1910 forced the abdication of the king and the establishment of the First Republic. Political chaos, economic problems, deteriorating relations with the Church, and a disastrous military intervention in the First World War led to a military coup d'état in 1926 and the installation of the Second Republic. In 1932, António de Oliveira Salazar was appointed prime minister and Portugal became a semi-fascist dictatorship that developed into a single party corporative regime, the only legal party being the União Nacional (UN).

In 1968, Salazar suffered a stroke and was replaced by Marcello Caetano as prime minister. Under Caetano repression was eased somewhat and limited economic development programs were started in Portugal and in the overseas territories. The continuing armed conflicts with guerrillas in the African territories required about 40 percent of Portugal's annual budget to be devoted to military spending, and hence constituted a serious drain on the country's resources. By early 1974 dissatisfaction with the seemingly endless wars in Africa, together with political suppression and economic difficulties, resulted in growing unrest within Portugal. On April 25 1974, an organized group of officers toppled the government in the "Captains' Revolution", encountering a minimum of resistance from loyal forces and enthusiastic acceptance from the people. General António de Spínola, who did not play an active role in the coup but had publicly criticized the Caetano government, was appointed head of the ruling military junta (the Armed Forces Movement, MFA). The secret police force was abolished, all political prisoners were released, full civil liberties were restored, (including freedom of the press and of all political parties), and overtures were made to the guerrilla groups in the African territories for a peaceful settlement of the conflicts. In September Spínola was forced to resign and the government became dominated by leftists.

In 1975, Angola, Mozambique, São Tomé and Principe, and Cape Verde were granted independence. East Timor was forcibly taken over by Indonesia and did not achieve independence until 2002. January to November of 1975 was the period of greatest leftist ascendancy domestically—most banks and industries were nationalized, a massive agrarian reform was begun in Alentejo, and the MFA-dominated government tried to ignore the elections of April, which strongly favoured moderate parties, and instead relied on communist support. Leftist predominance vanished after a failed coup attempt by radical military units in November, but many features of the revolutionary period of 1974–75 were incorporated into the constitution of 1976.

From 1977 to 1980 several moderate and socialist-dominated governments tried unsuccessfully to stabilize the country politically and economically. In 1980–82, a centre-right coalition experienced a similar fate, although it did succeed in instituting a process of constitutional revision, which reduced presidential power, the right of the military to intervene in politics, as well as the anti-capitalist biases of the 1976 constitution. From 1983 to 1985 a coalition government under socialist leader Mário Soares began to make some headway against the chaos and poverty caused by Salazar's long dictatorship, the African wars, and the 1974–75 leftist revolution.

In 1986, the centrists under Aníbal Cavaço Silva won an undisputed majority in parliament, Soares was elected to the presidency, and Portugal was admitted to the European Community (now the EU). Constitutional revision was furthered in 1989 and Soares was re-elected in 1991.

Politics in the new era

Portugal forms a parliamentary republic, whereby the prime minister is the head of government. Executive power is exercised by the Council of Ministers. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Assembly of the Republic. 

In the aftermath of the 1974-revolution, the Portuguese political scene was dominated mainly by two parties: the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Socialist Party (PS). In the legislative elections of 1991 the two parties together won nearly 80 percent of the vote, and between them controlled 90 percent of the seats in parliament. PSD had been in power since early 1980 through various coalitions, and renewed its absolute majority, winning 135 of 230 seats in the Assambléia da República. The PS had lost its early dominance but far outdistanced its nearest rivals, the Portuguese Communist Party (PCP) and the Democratic and Social Centre (CDS).  

Political stability and economic reforms created a favourable business climate in the early 1990s, especially for renewed foreign investment, and there was strong economic growth. The Socialists returned to power after the 1995 parliamentary elections; António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres became prime minister heading a minority administration that included several non-party ministers. Barred from running for a third term, Soares retired as president in 1996. Soares was succeeded by another Socialist, Jorge Fernando Branco de Sampaio.

In August 1996 the prime minister announced proposals for radical reform of the country’s political system. A reduction in the number of deputies in the legislature, the opening of electoral lists to independent citizens (thus ending the monopoly of the major parties) and provision for the holding of referendums on issues of national interest were among the changes envisaged. The changes came into effect in September 1997, along with the gradual establishment of a professional army and a reduction in compulsory military service.

The general election conducted in October 1999 was partially overshadowed by the crisis in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor. Nevertheless, the PS secured a majority of the seats in the national assembly and the government continued in office under Guterres. In the presidential election held in January 2001, Sampaio was re-elected for a second term.

Social Democratic victories in the December 2001 local elections led Guterres to resign as premier and party leader. Early parliamentary elections in March 2002 resulted in a defeat for the Socialists, and Social Democrat José Manuel Durão Barroso became primeminister, heading a coalition with the smaller People’s Party (Partido Popular), former CDS. In June 2004, Barroso was invited to take over the role of President of the European Commission from Romano Prodi, on the completion of the latter’s mandate in October. In order to accept this appointment, Barroso resigned as leader of the PSD, and subsequently as prime minister. On July 1 the populist Mayor of Lisbon and Secretary-General of the PSD, Pedro Santana Lopes, was elected leader of the PSD and became prime minister.

In the parliamentary elections of February 2005, the PS, which had advocated institutional reform and policies to increase economic growth during the campaign, achieved an overwhelming victory, winning an outright majority for the first time since the restoration of democracy in 1974; and José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa subsequently became premier. In early November 2005 President Sampaio announced that a presidential election would take place in January 2006. Sampaio, who was serving his second term, was not eligible to stand again and former premier Aníbal Cavaço Silva was elected president, becoming the first centre-right candidate to win the office since the 1974 revolution.


The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2006, Columbia University Press.

Heidar, K. and Berntzen E. (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Recent History (Portugal), in Europa World online . London, Routledge.