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The First Republic

In May 1911, the provisional government held elections for the Constituent Assembly, which undertook to write a new constitution. This document, which appeared on August 21, abolished the monarchy and inaugurated Portugal's first republican government. The constitution secularized the state by disestablishing the church, forbidding religious instruction in the public schools, and prohibiting the military from taking part in religious observances. It granted workers the right to strike and opened the civil service to merit appointments. The blue and white flag of the monarchy was replaced with one of red and green, embellished with an armillary sphere in gold.

The constitution vested legislative power in a bicameral Congress of the Republic. The upper house, called the Senate, was indirectly elected from local governments for six-year terms; the lower house, or Chamber of Deputies, was directly elected for three-year terms. Executive power was vested in a cabinet and prime minister responsible to the Congress, which also chose the president of the republic, the nominal head of state. The Constituent Assembly became the first Congress by electing one-third of its members to the Senate; the remaining two-thirds constituted the Chamber of Deputies.

The Portuguese Republican Party (Partido Repúblicano Português--PRP) was Portugal's first political party in the modern sense of the term. Although its base of support was primarily urban, the PRP had a nationwide organization that extended into the rural areas. It did not remain unified, however. In 1911 moderate and radical republican deputies divided over the election by the Constituent Assembly of the new president of the republic. The candidate of the radical republicans, led by Afonso Costa, was defeated by the candidate of the moderates, led by Manuel Brito Camacho and António José de Almeida, who opposed Costa's intransigent republicanism and feared that he would gain control of the new government. The split widened at the PRP Congress in October 1911 when the moderates where hooted down and left in disgust. The moderates then formed the Republican National Union (União Nacional Repúblicana--UNR), the directorate consisting of Camacho, Almeida, and Aresta Branco. The UNR was essentially a personal clique of several moderate leaders whose purpose was to get through parliament a program that would mitigate the impact of the more radical republican government. After this breakup, the PRP became known as the Democratic Party (Partido Democrático-- PD).

In February 1912, the UNR leadership itself split into two republican splinter parties. The immediate cause of the rift was disagreement over the UNR program and rivalry between Camacho and Almeida. The rump, led by Camacho, was renamed the Republican Union (União Repúblicana--UR), and its members became known as Unionists. The other group, led by Almeida, was called the Republican Evolutionist Party (Partido Repúblicano Evolucionista- -PRE), and its followers became known as Evolutionists. The program of the PRE was quite similar to that of the UR, but it urged a policy of moderation and conciliation and advocated proportional representation and revision of intolerant laws.

The splintering of the original PRP, personalism, and petty squabbles produced acute governmental instability during the First Republic. In its fifteen years and eight months of existence, there were seven elections for the Congress, eight for the presidency, and forty-five governments. Instability was also encouraged by the government's total dependency upon the Congress, where no stable majority could be organized.

This political turmoil led to several periods of military rule during the First Republic and eventually to its overthrow.

In January 1915, senior military officers, who were becoming increasingly alienated from the republic, imposed a period of military rule at President Manuel de Arriaga's request. In May of the same year, however, prorepublican junior officers and sergeants returned the government to civilians and held new elections. The PD, led by Afonso Costa, won the day.