Portugal votes amid economic woes

28th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

With the unemployment rate at a 22-year-high of 9.1 percent and climbing, Socrates has promised public works projects, such as a high-speed rail network and a new airport near Lisbon, to create jobs.

Lisbon -- Portugal voted Sunday in an election tipped to return Prime Minister Jose Socrates' Socialists to power but without their absolute majority in parliament as the country faces soaring unemployment.

Final opinion polls published Friday indicated the Socialists had extended their lead over the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) but would still not be able to capture more than half the seats on the 230-seat assembly.

"The country faces serious challenges and all Portuguese should take part in making a choice which will be very important for the years to come," a smiling Socrates told reporters after casting his ballot in central Lisbon.

With the unemployment rate at a 22-year-high of 9.1 percent and climbing, he has promised public works projects, such as a high-speed rail network and a new airport near Lisbon, to create jobs.

The PSD, weakened by a long-standing internal power struggle, opposed the projects on the grounds that they will increase Portugal's already high debt level, while also arguing that the private sector should drive economic growth.

But the party failed to make concrete proposals of its own and analysts said this, combined with a perceived lack of charisma by its leader, former finance minister Manuela Ferreira Leite, 68, made it hard for the PSD to capitalise on the nation's economic woes.

"By focusing her entire strategy on criticism of the government without making alternative proposals, Ferreira Leite failed to excite the electorate," University of Lisbon politics professor Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

As of 1500 GMT 43.3 percent of all eligible voters had cast ballots, compared to 50.9 percent at the same time during the last elections in 2005, according to the Interior Ministry.

Voting in the proportional representation election closes at 1800 GMT and the first estimates will be given one hour later.

"I have always voted for the Socialists and I don't see another alternative. Socrates was the first with the will to carry out reforms that were urgently needed," said 69-year-old Ines after she cast her ballot in Lisbon.

Socrates, 52, was elected in a landslide in 2005 on promises of reviving the economy through increased investment in research and development and greater computer and Internet access.

He has made the labour market more flexible, cut bureaucracy and reformed the health and education systems, leading to protests by teachers, civil servants and others affected by the changes.

Socrates says his reforms were derailed by the global financial crisis which erupted last year, but argues they have helped the country cope better with the economic downturn than many of its European peers.

Portugal posted gross domestic product growth of 0.3 percent in the second quarter, making it one of the first nations in Europe, along with economic heavyweights France and Germany, to emerge from recession.

The country's unemployment rate, while rising, is below the European Union average and half the rate in neighbouring Spain.

Anger over the government's reforms have driven many Socialist voters to the hard left, the Communist-Green Party coalition and the Left Bloc.

"I voted for the Bloc because we need to have a strong opposition on the left of the Socialists," said 29-year-old Tomas.

Both the Left Bloc and the Communists have rejected forming an alliance with the Socialists, although the Communists have left the door open to cooperation with the party on a case-by-case basis.

Only one minority government has survived its full term since the end of a right-wing dictatorship in 1974, that of former Socialist premier Antonio Guterres between 1995 and 1999.

It relied on agreements with opposition parties to pass legislation on a case-by-case basis.


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