Portugal set to pay last respects to ex-leader Soares

Brigitte HAGEMANN
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The founder of Portugal's Socialist party, Mario Soares spent decades in politics

The founder of Portugal's Socialist party, Mario Soares spent decades in politics (AFP Photo/Miguel Riopa)

Lisbon (AFP) - Portugal was on Sunday preparing to pay its final respects to Mario Soares, widely seen as the father of the country's modern-day democracy, after the former president died in hospital aged 92.

Monday sees the start of three days of national mourning, with a state funeral to be held the following day for Soares who served as president from 1986-96.

The founder of Portugal's Socialist party and spearhead of the country's entry into the European Union died Saturday.

Tributes flooded in from across the world for the man who also served as foreign minister and prime minister, and later became a European lawmaker.

The new United Nations secretary-general, ex-Portuguese premier Antonio Guterres, hailed Soares as "one of the rare political leaders who had real stature in both Europe and the world."

Former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff said that Soares was "adored by the people and respected by his adversaries."

The Soares family hopes that the funeral and period of mourning will reflect the former leader's jovial personality and "closeness to the people," his former adviser Jose Manuel Dos Santos said.

That connection with ordinary people could be seen on the streets of Lisbon Sunday.

"He was the father of freedom," said former office worker Maria Fernandes, 70, with tears in her eyes.

- 'The voice of freedom' -

Portuguese newspapers were emblazoned with headlines such as "Thank you Soares" and "A whole life dedicated to the fight for liberty".

The former Socialist leader's body will lie in state in a monastery chapel in Lisbon on Monday for mourners to pay their last respects.

Portugal's Prime Minister and fellow Socialist Antonio Costa said Saturday that the country had lost "someone who has so many times been the face and the voice of our freedom, for which he fought all his life".

Soares had been admitted to hospital in Lisbon on December 13, and although his condition initially showed signs of some improvement, he later fell into a deep coma and never recovered.

The hospital did not reveal the precise cause of Soares's death, but relatives say he never fully overcame a spate of illnesses in 2013. His health further deteriorated after his wife's death in July 2015.

- Critic of austerity -

Born in Lisbon on December 7, 1924, Mario Alberto Nobre Lopes Soares was raised in a family opposed to the dictatorship of Antonio Oliveira Salazar.

His father Joao Soares, a defrocked priest, struggled against the regime for decades, suffering long periods of imprisonment and exile.

Mario Soares was both a charmer and a humanist known for being spontaneous and warm.

A self-defined agnostic, he said he believed in "humanity and its improvement", and described himself as being driven by "a great desire to live and by immense curiosity".

"I am a poor man who has been fortunate to have taken stands and to have been right," he told the "i" newspaper in February 2015.

On the international stage, Soares was also seen as a political giant, "a great European" and the "decisive figure for Portuguese democracy," said Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Soares was "the symbol and the artisan of resistance to the dictatorship and the transition of his country to democracy," said European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

French President Francois Hollande said Portugal's democracy had lost "one of its heroes; Europe, one of its great leaders; and France, a faithful friend".

Soares made a final public appearance in July, when he attended a ceremony held in his honour by the ruling Socialist-led government.

Visibly frail, he did not make a speech.