Portugal cheers Socialist victory

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The Portuguese are not a demonstrative people. More moving, then, than the cavalcades of young people who careered round Lisbon in the early hours of yesterday morning, celebrating a Socialist victory that surpassed expectations, was the sight of ordinary folk quietly lining the streets with a light in their eyes and a smile on their lips.

Opinion polls had caught the trend, but underestimated its force. The Socialists, in opposition for a decade, won 43.9 per cent of the vote, 109 seats in the 230-seat parliament. It is their biggest victory for 20 years. They fall just short of an absolute majority, but enjoy a comfortable advantage in the face of a divided opposition. Always among the more moderate of Europe's democratic socialist parties, the Socialists have become even more pragmatic and Blairite recently.

The conservative Social Democratic Party saw its 1991 majority of 50.2 per cent slashed to 34 per cent. The Communist-led CDU alliance won 8.6 per cent, a decline from its previous vote, showing that the Socialists held the bulk of the left-wing vote. The right-wing Popular Party, with 9 per cent, tripled its number of MPs to 15, clearly benefiting from a drift from the Social Democrats. Eight seats remain to be counted and the complete results will not be known for two weeks.

"The turn" was the headline of Lisbon's A Capital newspaper, summing up the transformation. But none doubt that the turn is an affirmation of Portugal's young democracy, not a threat to it. The outgoing Social Democratic Prime Minister, Anibal Cavaco Silva, conceded defeat with elegance, in acknowledgment of the national desire for change and the likelihood that this would occur in a stable democratic framework.

The future Socialist Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, 46, promises he will govern alone. But in his victory speech he also promised to co- operate with the opposition on important issues and to work in the interests of all Portuguese.

Mr Guterres pledged to stick to the timetable for monetary union imposed by the European Union, an unusual commitment for a Socialist victory speech. The gesture was a restatement of a key strand of continuity in Portugal's policy towards Brussels. Business interests had already shown themselves unflustered by the prospect of a Socialist government.

Sunday's result suggests that the Portuguese, frustrated with the Social Democrats' buttoned-up and tarnished image, still seek continuity in an increasingly socially relaxed country that has under Mr Cavaco Silva's stern guidance come closer to Europe's mainstream.