50 steps to freedom: Portugal celebrates five decades of coronation day

April 25 is marked as a day of crowning of democracy and freedom

Portugal carnation revolution Celeste Caeiro, 90, holds a bunch of red carnations, in Lisbon, on Thursday, during the reenactment of troops movements of fifty years ago, part of anniversary celebrations of the Carnation Revolution | AP

As Portugal commemorates 50 years of democracy, the air lingers with the smell of carnation flowers and the spirit of liberty. This year marks an important milestone for the Portuguese people, celebrating five decades of the end of the dictatorial regime of Estado Novo and the new dawn of democracy. Freedom of the press, free elections, the right to health, to protest, the right to education for all, and women's empowerment were many of the achievements of the revolution. But every year, during the celebrations, a question always arises – what more is to be accomplished?

Coronation day: A misnomer in the Portuguese context

The 25th of April is etched in the hearts of the Portuguese not as a day of Liberty but as a day of rebirth, a day when the fragrance of freedom overpowered the scent of tyranny. It’s a day that doesn’t commemorate the ascent of a monarch but honours the rise of the people’s will. The Carnation Revolution, as it’s affectionately known, is a narrative of peace—a revolution so unique that not a single bullet was fired in anger to overthrow the dictatorship.

Celeste Caeiro, a humble restaurant worker, becomes an unwitting symbol of the revolution as she handed out carnations to soldiers. A simple act, but it resonated deeply, sparking a movement where flowers become mightier than guns. Following her, others too, jubilant in the twilight of dictatorship, adorned rifles with carnations and draped the soldiers’ uniforms with petals of peace and freedom. Many such sights were seen in the city of Lisbon on Thursday when people handed out flowers to the police and military.

Portugal has been a nation since 1910, and its empire is a monument to antiquity. April 25, therefore, is not a crowning of heads but of ideals—the crowning of democracy and freedom. Dia da Liberdade (Liberation Day), celebrates Portugal’s transformation from an authoritarian state to a beacon of democracy as this revolution not only overthrew the dictators but also inspired the abandonment of Portugal’s colonies in Africa.

On the auspicious day, it was a sight to see the people trying to recreate 1974. They took to the streets dancing, singing, even parading and shouting “25 de Abril sempre! Fascismo nunca mais” (25th of April always! Fascism no more). The parade held at the Avenida Liberdade, the main street that connects old and new Lisbon, saw many processions shouting slogans and holding banners raising issues regarding the economy, salary hikes to even extending support to Palestine.

portugal carnation revolution People gather Avenida da Liberdade during the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Portugal's Carnation Revolution that resulted in the overthrow of dictatorship and transition to democracy, in Lisbon | Reuters

A reflection of the revolution’s legacy

This year, as the Portuguese mark the golden jubilee of the revolution, we’re reminded of its indelible legacy. The festivities are a tapestry of memory and joy, with military parades and cultural showcases that mirror the revolution’s profound influence on Portuguese life and governance. A recent poll underscores this sentiment, revealing that 65% of Portuguese view the 25th April Revolution as the pivotal event in their nation’s history—a sentiment that resonates even after fifty years.

The women of the revolution

The unsung heroes of this revolution were the women of Portugal. Women’s rights were severely restricted under the Estado Novo regime before the revolution. They were expected to abide by traditional roles in the family and community, and their legal rights were limited. Long marginalised in the oppressive shadow of the Estado Novo, their rights were sometimes little more than an afterthought. But the winds of change on April 25, 1974, heralded a new era. The subsequent constitution in 1976 was a watershed moment, establishing legal equality between women and men—a major change in a country once dominated by outdated educational barriers and curtailed opportunities for women on having to vote

After the revolution, women’s activism grew. The Movimento da Libertação da Mulher (MLM) emerged from the shadows, supporting the cause of women’s rights and social acceptance. It was a clear call to accept, one that still resonates in the ways of the times.

Looking forward: Challenges and triumphs

Reminiscing the fifty years, Portugal does so with pride and contemplation. The revolution brought basic rights and freedoms, but challenges such as economic inequality and the need for access to the steady progression of life remain.

Undoubtedly, Portugal is better today than it was 50 years ago. However, the low productivity of the economy, low income and high expense ratios, precarious work and the decline of public services place the country in a backward position compared to other European countries.

According to Eurostat data, productivity per worker in Portugal is 28% lower than the average for Eurozone countries. For at least 10 years, Portugal has remained at the tail end of productivity in the single currency space, falling short of even the poorest economic countries of Europe. In six years, it was overtaken by the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), and in the context of the European Union (EU), it was also overtaken by Croatia, Romania and Poland.

In short, Portugal continues to be at the table bottom as the poorest country in Western Europe. Portugal still has not improved its relative situation in terms of country ranking. It also continues to be most backwards in terms of human capital and the education levels of its population. Furthermore, it still trails the table in terms of the functioning of political institutions of Western Europe. According to economic pundits, even with PS and PSD ruling back-to-back the economic situations have not changed nor have been able to generate reforms to converge with the rest of Europe.

With five decades of democratic life and 38 years in the European Union, the country will also have to rethink its participation in the community project and yet reduce its dependence on European Union money for its welfare.

That said, the 50th anniversary of the 25th April Revolution was a day of joyous celebration and serious reflection for Portugal. Commemorating the country’s journey towards freedom and democracy is a call to continue striving for the values of a revolution-supporting nation. As the Portuguese celebrate, they also reflect on the true essence of this day: the day the people were able to triumph over brutality and fight for liberty.

“Viva a Liberdade! 25 de Abril, sempre!” (Long live freedom! 25th April, always!)


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