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Iberian Political Culture: Approaches to Modern Portugal and Spain

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2563 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Describe the historical crisis of liberalism and the emergence of authoritarianism in early twentieth-century Portugal.

This essay will attempt to describe the historical and political situation during the liberalism and it goes to explain the monarchy period in more details. Especially the rotativismo, the political changes of the end of the ninetieth- century including the impacts that they have on the economy and the society.  It emphases the economic development due to the import of the machines as well as the scarce innovation to improve the businesses and the production system. The wine industry is often mentioned as it represented for Portugal economy the main source of income. A particular attention is paid to the working condition of the farmers and to the different jobs  between the urban and rural areas.  The second part of the essay is about the economic and political relationship between Portugal and other countries such as Britain, France and Germany, in terms of commercial trade and first world war alliances. This will lead to the British Ultimatum including the withdrawal of Portugal colonies from Angola and Mozambique, and the humiliation of the Portuguese as a result.  Consequently, this essay will focus on the political difficulties and divergences of the post-war which period is marked by the republicanism of Afonso Casta , the “New Republic” of Sidonio Pais and finally the dictatorship of Salazar.

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Since 1851 Portugal created two-party system of government intended to modernize the country and  boost the economy for example by reducing the price of wine and stimulating the manufacture of imports.  However, the economy recession on Europe undermined the basis of this prosperity and the politics start to think about the opportunity to colonize and export into Africa. In particular, they attempt to colonized Angola and Mozambique to encourage the commercial trade of raw materials (Birminghan, 2003)

The monarchy period was also characterized by rotativismo which refer to the alternation of power between the two main political parties: the Regenerators and the Historicals. The most successful politician of this period was Antonio Fontes Pereira De Mel. Since in office, he fought against protectionism; thus enhancing Portugal to import, mainly from Britain, twice as much as it was exporting ( Gallagher, 1983)

During the ninetieth-century the provincial aristocracy managed their own lands while acquiring literacy and trade skills to avoid doing manual jobs such as farmers whose lives were very hard and insecure: if the weather was bad nothing was earned. Similarly, the liberal state found better ways to rural society the opportunities to work in public project such as the construction of the road and railway systems to improve internal and external communication while linking the country to France and Spain. Yet, in rural society the church had an important role as it provided poor and sick people with food and shelter (Birminghan, 2003)

In the 70s the economy was marked by a tremendous improvement as machine production substituted craft production. The import of machines increased as the production of cork became more profitable thanks to international commercial. Nevertheless, several foreign capitals were investing on railway system and infrastructure. As a consequence the railway transports became cheaper and more reliable; the agricultural incomes rose and Portugal could finally open up to new markets(Birminghan, 2003) 

Portugal however failed to built adequate tariff barriers to support its industries. It succumbed to Britain pressure to keep supplying raw materials and acquire manufactures. For instance, it had the lowest international trades among other European countries and its markets were too small for economy of scale. In essence, many fields of production were inefficient or did not even exist. In agriculture the soils were very poor due to an indifferent climate and the farmers did not have enough educational skills to create new techniques that could have enhanced the production of wine. It may be argued that Spain could have provided Portugal with raw material such as iron and coal but it could have also triggered social instability while putting the working class against the administration of the country(Birminghan, 2003)

Throughout the country the structure of landownership was fragmented. The upper bourgeoisie remained tied to aristocracy and preferred to invest on land; whereas the lower middle class pursued its security through public salary rather than seeking for small businesses and entrepreneurship(Birminghan, 2003). Between 1890 and 1900 more than 60 per cent of Portuguese worked in the tertiary sector while the 20 per cent in secondary sector. A working day could last around 12 hours outside Portugal and 17 hours inside Portugal. For example, the farmers used to work on their land at night so that they could focus on other’s people land during the day. Similarly, carpenters and builders would start working at 4:30 in the morning and finish at 7:30 in the evening. The percentage of illiteracy people was around 73 per cent (De Figuieredo, 1975) Not surprisingly, emigration dominated the lives of working class Portuguese. On average more than 25’000 people a year were emigrating to Brazil and to Africa to work for the Portugal empire project which was to link Angola and Mozambique by railways. (Birminghan, 2003)

Nevertheless in Angola Portugal was accused to exploit workers as it adopted policies similar to slavery especially when building railways and infrastructure, or when growing coffee in the plantations. The problem was that also Britain, Germany and France had their own colonies in Africa, and quite often Portugal was oppressed by their strength and power. In 1890 Britain forced Portugal to withdraw from the hinterland of Angola and Mozambique. This historical fact well-known as British Ultimatum humiliated Portugal and increased a feeling of discontent especially among urban proletariats and junior officers in the country, which consequently organized themselves into a conspiracy movement called carbonari in order to rival the government and the monarchy (Birminghan, 2003). The Ultimatum had social repercussion: it showed that actually Portugal empire was not as strong as the Portuguese elite had  thought. ( De Figueiredo ,1975)

After the British Ultimatum in 1890 the middle class intellectual were afraid that Portugal could become a colony of Britain.  As a consequence, a sense of nationalism started to spread across the country. On the one hand, republicans gained a political success by organizing a celebration of the tercentenary of Camoes, Portugal’ most patriotic poet. On the other, they began to take root in the army while accusing their opponents of anarchism; In 1906 King Carlos and his son were assassinated by carbonari. In terms of propaganda they achieved  a relevant consensus by creating their own national newspaper “O Trabalho” which was a strategic move as national press made people feel part of the same community. With the support of professors and intellectuals they went on their first seat in parliament  while bridging the gap between the socialist workers and bourgeois republicans.  (Birminghan, 2003)

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By the time of the first presidential election in 1911, the republicans were divided in two main parties: the Portuguese Republic Party (PRP) or Democratic Party led by Afonso Costa, and the Evolutionist Party led by Antonio Jose De Almeida. The former consisted of radical and progressive supporters, while the latter involved non-revolutionary and moderate supporters (De Figueiredo, 1975) The greatest of the republican leader was Alfonso Costa, an energetic administrator who also founded a faculty of laws in Lisbon. As minister of justice he made progressive reforms which led to some improvement in the society. For example, he extended  primary education , opened mass-literacy classes and encouraged university education (Birminghan, 2003) However, the following progressive legislation did not satisfy the ideal and desire of the middle-class intellectuals as there was no improvement in economic terms, nor in the standard of living (Saraiva, 1997) Instead, he implemented controversial laws such as the separation of church and state and the acceptance of divorce while suppressing many convents, monasteries as well as religious orders. For example, it was illegal to teach religion in the schools and to wear clerical garbs in public (Birminghan, 2003)

The Democratic Party built up its power in Lisbon and offered many job opportunity to its supporters, but it was unable to fulfill the expectation among the proletariat. Thirty per cent of industrial employees in the city earned ten times the average salary of the farmers in the villages. In essence, the republican revolution was a Lisbon revolution. The ¾ of population that lived in the rural areas was not involved into politics; they did not listen to political speeches , nor did they read newspapers. In theory, the republicans promised to favor the reorganization of trade unions and restore the right to strike. In practice, the police used violence against the strikers. Nevertheless, in foreign economy Afonso Costa established a stronger and strategic relationship with Great Britain as the colonies of Portugal  were threatened by the Germans. This political move did not like to his traditional supporters. Moreover, in 1914 when the First World War began he forced thousands of Portuguese to fight in alliance with France. He was convinced that the intervention was beneficial for the whole country. However, this second political decision did not like the conservative community since the Portugal’s participation to the war had never been consensual( Birminghan, 2003)

The main opponent to the democratic republicanism of Afonso Costa was the military authoritarianism of Sidonio Pais. His first attempt to establish a dictatorship arose from the difficulties and divergences caused by Portugal’s entry into the First World War (Figueiredo, 1975) Sidonio Pais’ greatest supporter was the catholic church as he planned to restore the clergy privileges and abolish the law of separation between the church and the state. Also, he gained support from the landowners who hoped he would restore inequalities of wealth and from the industrialist who hoped he would repress the trade unions. In 1917 he paved a way for a military coup d’etat and consequently he won the election despite the limitations of the suffrage. Meanwhile, Afonso Costa was arrested and then exiled. (Birminghan, 2003)  Among the basic principles of the new regime, that he named “New Republic”, there was the guaranteeing  of law and social justice, and national independence.  However, the problem of Sidonio Pais was to keep the old republicans out of the higher ranked of the parliament. His experiment in “presidentialism” ended within a year when he was assassinated  in Lisbon (Birminghan, 2003) 

The following years are characterized by several civil wars, and political instabilities. The monarchy gained consensus in the north of the country while attempting to restore the royalist regime. Meanwhile the Evangelist Party tried to take action against the major breakthrough of the monarchy, but its elected prime minister was assassinated.  Gradually, among the army spread the conviction that only a dictatorship could restore social tranquility and political harmony.  In 1926, as it was expected  a new group of junior officers led by the General Manuel Gomes de Costa, announced from Braga their intention to march on Lisbon and take power. This military establishment of the north wanted to replace the existing system of parliamentary with a national non-party government (Saraiva, 1997). On May, the prime minister Antonio Maria de Silva resigned and the First Republic came to an end. Despite the military coup Portugal financial crisis intensified, so General Carmona invited Antonio De Oliveira Salazar to join his administration as minister of finance.

In 1933, as Salazar became prime minister, he took distance from the previous military coup. His first move was to draft a new Constitution which emphasized the power of the executive in regard of state control and market economy; accordingly, the government was meant to answer to the President of the Republic which was elected by direct and universal suffrage, and not to the parliament. The National Union was designed to incorporate all the political ideologies although in reality it only responded to the executive. Apart from reorganizing the structure of the institution , the regime made many social and economic changes. For example, it funded the construction of roads, bridges, office, schools and museums. As a result the production rose continuously and the policy of paying the minimum wage during period of stability reinforced the economy while allowing the industry to develop (Saraiva, 1997). Among other things Salazar was against consumerism, capitalism, urbanization, and women’s rights. In other words, during his long political career, he resisted modern trends which could undermine his goals and values. It may be argued that his authoritarian style brought stability and coherence in the country.

In conclusion, what it can be extracted from the history of Portugal is that no matter which government was in power, the lower class was always left behind. In other words, the social inequalities remained quite visible throughout the century. It may be argued that the politicians took advantages of it to gain consensus depending on the historical moment. Not surprisingly, some political parties had nearly the same supporters with the exception of the extremism. However, during liberalism the gap between rich and poor was bigger. On the one hand,  It seems that liberal policies made somehow the country develop and modernize at the expenses of the lower-middle class.  On the other, the republic and the authoritarian period seemed to stabilize and balance it despite all the assassinations of some politicians. Dictatorship eventually brought stabilization but it also stopped modernization and personal development. Independently of the political party, any type of censorship, that is not education, nor monitoring systems, hinder the evolution of human and society.


  • Antonio de Figueiredo (1975) “Portugal: fifty years of dictatorship”. Penguin books ltd.
  • David Birminghan (2003) “A concise history of Portugal”:Canbridge university press.
  • Jose Armanio Saraiva (1997) ”Poetugal: a companion history”. Alience House
  • Tom Gallagher (1983) “Portugal: a twentieth-century interpretation. Manchester University press.


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