Portugal poised to oust ruling Socialists in early election

4th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Portugal's centre-right opposition looks set to oust the Socialists from power Sunday in an early general election that will decide who will implement a demanding 78-billion-euro bailout deal.

Final polls published Friday gave the Social Democrats (PSD) around 36 percent of the vote against 31 percent for Prime Minister Jose Socrates's Socialists, who have been in power since 2005.

If confirmed the PSD would fall short of an absolute majority in the 230-seat parliament but they could govern in coalition with the third-place conservative CDS-PP party as they have several times in the past.

Saturday is an official "day of reflection" and campaigning and the publication of polls are banned.

Portugal's three main parties have agreed to the conditions attached to the bailout deal struck in May with the so-called "troika" -- the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank.

These include major cuts in public spending on health, education and pensions and other social programmes at a time when the unemployment rate hit a record 12.6 percent in April, one of the highest levels in the eurozone.

But the parties disagree on the best way to achieve the required reduction in government spending as well as over how to revive the economy, which is expected to shrink by around two percent this year and the next.

PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho, 46, has repeatedly promised to "go beyond" the demands imposed by the troika in terms of reforms and privatisations and accused Socrates of steering the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

"We have to re-establish confidence in Portugal," he said during the final rally of his campaign, held on Friday night at a packed square in the historic centre of Lisbon.

"We will fulfill the agreement reached with the European Union and International Monetary Fund until the last paragraph, until the last deadline, and we will pay what was asked for in our name until the last euro."

Socrates, 53, has accused the PSD of having a "radical right-wing agenda" to curb public services like free schooling and health care.

"This election is about choosing between protecting social protection networks even as we resolve this crisis or, as the right wants to do, taking advantage of the crisis to dismantle them," he said Friday at a Lisbon tavern.

The early election was triggered by Socrates' resignation at the end of March after the opposition rejected in parliament his minority government's fourth austerity package in just under a year.

Two weeks later Portugal became the third eurozone nation to request an international bailout to avoid economic collapse after Greece and Ireland last year.

Socrates argues that he did everything to avoid a bailout. He blames the PSD, which had backed previous fiscal tightening, for provoking a political crisis to topple the government "out of a greed for power".

Passos Coelho, 46, has warned that if Socrates is re-elected "within six months" Portugal could find itself in the same "tragic" situation as Socialist-run Greece, which now needs a second bailout.

Analysts said lingering doubts over Passos Coelho, who lacks government experience, having served only as a lawmaker for several years in the 1990s, had prevented the party from posting stronger gains despite the weak economy.

"There is enormous uncertainty over Passos Coelho. He has never been a minister. There are worries over his capacity to meet the targets of the bailout," said Radio Renascenca political commentator and editor Francisco Sarsfield Cabral.

© 2011 AFP

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