GRANTED, ONE CAN'T be choosy about the timing of such great events as emerging from four decades of dictatorship. But if ever a country picked the "wrong" time to make its democratic debut, it was Portugal. The convulsion in its former African colonies that precipitated the downfall of the Caetano regime also released upon Portugal proper a flood of impoverished, embittered refugees. Simultaneously, the world recession forced home many Portuguese guest workers and diminished the flow of repatriated wages of guest workers who stayed at their jobs. The country's whole trade was constricted. Tourism fell off. This was going on, of course, in the poorest country in Europe.

Meanwhile, the new political system had to cope with the demands of a suddenly awakened and politicized population unfamiliar with the habits of cooperation or the requirements of self -restraint. The wonder is not that Portugal is now in crisis but that its fledgling democracy survived long enough to greet this ordeal. The Socialist premier, Mario Soares, has just lost a vote of confidence. His problem is simply described. He wishes to govern with just his own party, but he is in the minority and lacks the votes to enact the austerity program that the International Monetary Fund has set as the condition for making an essential loan. Mr. Soares fears that, if he takes in the parties of the right, the Communists will use the unions to paralyze the country's economy, and if he takes in the Communists, the right will use (or be used by) the armed forces to paralyze the country's politics. Mr. Soares is a tough bird, and he is widely expected to maneuver his way through.But times are difficult in Lisbon, and when Portugal gets through this crisis, the next will be along soon.

The United States has no small interest in the successful revival of democracy in Portugal, and it has played no small part in helping to sustain it. But the principal source of what external support the Portuguese people have needed has come, and should continue to come, from Portugal's fellow Europeans. The burden that Lisbon places upon them is not beyond their resources, either economic or political. THey have the strongest self-interest in seeing to it that the frailest among them picks up the momentum to become a reasonably sturdy member of their community. Given the odds the Portuguese have conquered so far, it does not seem overly optimistic to say that, for their fellow Europeans, they are a good bet.