Salazar at his desk with a picture of Mussolini
Salazar at his desk with a picture of Mussolini

Salazar’s rise to power

Dr António de Oliveira Salazar of Coimbra University took the first step into national politics on three separate occasions.

Third time lucky

In 1921, Salazar stood for election to the Chamber as a candidate of the Catholic Centre in Guimarães. Successful, he spent only one day in the Lisbon parliament before he caught the train back to Coimbra. He was horrified and revolted by the shouting in the parliamentary chamber. This experience led him to develop a preference for a political process which avoided both democracy and parliament.

The second time was in 1926. Salazar had accepted the post of Finance Minister from Mendes Cabeçadas, who had overthrown the Republican government; but he remained in Lisbon for only three days, enough to scent that the politicians who had summoned him were “cavalos errados”, or wrong horses, in the race for power, and he again returned to Coimbra.

After many demands that he should reconsider, he returned to Lisbon and took up the Finance portfolio once more. He stayed for five days and, after giving a withering account of the nation’s finances in a cabinet meeting, the implacable Salazar returned yet again to Coimbra. He was deaf to all entreaties that he should return to Lisbon, but he was already in possession of an aura of indispensability.

The third time shows one of the quirky accidents of history, since it was just on April 25 that Salazar made his personal march on Lisbon. It was not the April 25 of 1974, the future Day of Freedom, but April 25, 1928, when the Coimbra “financial wizard” boarded the train at Coimbra for Lisbon. After various attempts at joining the Lisbon government, this third time was at last the right time.


Conservative and authoritarian

In his determination to avoid the parliamentary process, he had caught the flavour of the times, since Mussolini in Italy and Primo de Rivera in Spain were also in the process of governing without parliament. In a similar way, Estonia, Lithuania, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Turkey were becoming conservative and totalitarian. This central and eastern European phenomenon can be seen as a reaction against the Bolshevik menace in Russia.

Salazar had an admiration for Mussolini because of his social work and his development of public works, and the “order” imposed in Italy after the Great War. At the same time, Salazar rejected Mussolini’s pompous displays, the atheism and violence of fascist methods. Although for a long time he had a picture of Mussolini on his desk, he viewed Mussolini’s swaggering and boasting with aloofness.

One of the more important actions copied from Italy was the way in which the plebiscite for the New Constitution for the Estado Novo was managed – abstentions counted as votes in favour. And instead of the Marxist class struggle, Salazar preferred the cooperation between owners and workers, a corporatist state, similar to the Italian model.

The later institutions of the Legião Portuguesa and Mocidade Portuguesa were concessions to the fashions of the time rather than a political necessity, and Salazar never enthused about them.


The 1926 government

On his second visit in 1926, Salazar aimed for a clarification of the role of Finance Minister but without success. In the meantime, a palace coup had deposed Gomes da Costa, and General Carmona had become President of the Republic. All this had been stage managed in the background by Sinel de Cordes, who became Finance Minister.

João José Sinel de Cordes was an extensively decorated army officer, but a poor Finance Minister. He served with distinction in Flanders in the Great War and participated in the National Revolution of May 28, 1926.

In the turmoil following this Revolution, he three times held the post of Finance Minister. He asked Salazar to prepare a paper on the reform of the tax system, but he appears to have treated Salazar like an unruly junior officer.

In June 1927, Salazar submitted to Sinel his paper on the reform of the tax system. This document was much more than a fiscal study, offering as it did a complete programme for the government. Finance Minister Sinel de Cordes not only did not publish this paper, but he also declined to follow any of its recommendations. This attitude denoted a decisive split which defined the future of the country.

Salazar then declared himself an implacable overseer of the national finances. Taking Sinel’s actions at the ministry point by point, he demolished each and every one of his decisions. These demolitions appeared in national magazines and papers, but especially in the Catholic periodical Novidades and in the national daily Diário de Notícias.

Sinel had lost his authority, and vice-President Passos de Sousa again invited Salazar into government. Again and again, emissaries were dispatched to Coimbra to convince him to join the government. As he continued to refuse, Salazar was building the later myth that he was sacrificing himself for his country.

Salazar felt that it was not yet time to agree because, after their public disagreement, he could not serve any Prime Minister who also had Sinel de Cordes in his cabinet.

The alleged sacrifice of 1928, when Salazar finally agreed to move back to Lisbon, had been prepared in detail for more than a year. This political calculation was made not without courage because, in confronting Sinel, Salazar had taken on the strong man of the régime. On the other hand, he knew that he was portraying himself as the “Nation’s Reserve Strongman”.

In November of that year, he wrote seven consecutive articles for Novidades, in which he described his proposed programme for the government. In his vision, it was no use to seek an external loan without balancing the national budget. On January 28, 1928, he returned to the charge.

“If we do not succeed in balancing the budget, in spite of great hardship and sacrifice, the millions which come from abroad will provide only a temporary relief; an opportunity for a few shady deals, and the foundation of ruin for the rest of us.”

The request by Sinel de Cordes for an international loan of £12 million was a poisoned chalice, since it was a condition that Portuguese finances would be controlled by a panel of foreign financial experts. This development was unacceptable to the military government, and it reminded the unhappy nation of the British Ultimatum of 1890. And it reminds us of the Troika in Portugal in 2011.

Salazar was also aware of, and took note of, the plan to revalue the Italian lira, imposed by Mussolini at this time against the advice of all his economists. This plan resulted in famine in Italy, but Italy became a power respected by the financial markets.

1933 poster for New Constitution
1933 poster for New Constitution


April 25, 1928

The new military dictatorship had taken power on May 28, 1926, a day known as the National Revolution, but, one by one, the leaders of that coup had fallen.

Mendes Cabeçadas, Gomes da Costa and others had come and gone. The new President of the Republic, General Óscar Carmona, now brought in men who had nothing to do with the National Revolution.

How was the financial problem to be resolved? Professor Salazar of Coimbra University was the obvious solution. Salazar saw that the financial situation was so bad that the military would accept his answers without question, and he planned, once he was in power, to use his expertise to control the military. Carmona was not to know of Salazar’s personal objectives.

The previous Finance Minister, Sinel de Cordes, had served a third term, disastrously, for less than a fortnight. Summoning Salazar, the President of the Council, Colonel Vicente de Freitas, agreed to all of Salazar’s conditions: “Yes sir, full powers, total, absolute, power of veto, anything you want, provided you come!”


After 1928

On April 25, 1928, with the words of Colonel de Freitas ringing in his ears, Salazar came back down to Lisbon for the third time, but this time he chose to stay.  The conditions were right for him to realise his financial and political plan.  When he met Vicente de Freitas in Lisbon, he said: “Do not thank me for accepting this job because it is such a great sacrifice that I should not make for anyone, either out of friendship or favour.  But I accept on behalf of my Country as a duty coldly and serenely to be accomplished.”

His next statement to the President of the Council is one of his most famous. “I know what I want and where I am going, but do not ask me to complete my task in only a few months. The country may study, represent, complain, argue but when the time comes for orders, the country must obey.”

There is something chilling about the use of the word obey.

Salazar knew that the military government wanted him in post and, by his many refusals, he had apparently shown that he was not ambitious for power. Salazar’s insistence on balancing the budget, an approach so different from that of Sinel de Cordes, showed that his financial alternative was solidly based.


Salazar scales the heights

It was clear that in 1930, while still Finance Minister, Salazar was the strong man in the cabinet and the saviour of the military dictatorship. In 1932, Salazar took over the position of President of the Council of Ministers (Prime Minister, in British terms) from Domingos de Oliveira, the third Prime Minister he had served, after Vicente de Freitas and Ivens Ferraz (all of whom were army officers).

António Ferro, who would become the propagandist of the regime, interviewed Salazar a number of times, and he later published these interviews in a book. He showed that Salazar had already accomplished his financial programme with total success, garnering personal and international prestige.

Salazar had been clear enough about the political side of his programme. “Our dictatorship is close to a fascist dictatorship, that much is clear, in the reinforcement of authority, on the war declared on certain principles of democracy, on its pronounced national character and on its preoccupation with social order and renovation.

“The fascist dictatorship tends towards a pagan authoritarianism, towards a New State which acknowledges no limits on either judicial or moral order, which marches towards its goal, without meeting embarrassments or obstacles. Mussolini is an admirable opportunist for action. But he himself has said: ‘Fascism is a typically Italian product as Bolshevism is a Russian product. Neither the one nor the other can be transplanted successfully into foreign soil.’ The New State in Portugal, on the other hand, cannot think of escaping from certain limitations of moral order, which it considers essential as safety nets on its reforming action.”

Salazar founded the União Nacional whose name said everything: a sole authorised party which, in 1933, would found the PVDE (later the PIDE). The political police would serve as an all-powerful tool supporting the régime, changing its format various times like a state within a state. In 1936, the Legião Portuguesa and Mocidade Portuguesa were also founded, copying nazi-fascist organisations like the Hitler Youth.

The Constitution of 1933 introduced a kind of Presidency in the office of Prime Minister, with its executive power considerably reinforced. Unpicking the paradox of the regime, António Ferro invented a political Columbus’ Egg. Salazar was in charge but under the nominal command of the President of Portugal, General Carmona: “The General is the dictatorship,” declared Ferro, “and Dr Salazar is the dictator!”

By Peter Booker
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Peter Booker co-founded with his wife Lynne the Algarve History Association.