Portugal prepares to vote with centre-right opposition ahead
Portugal goes to the polls Sunday in an early general election that will decide who will implement a 78 billion euro bailout deal, with the centre-right opposition ahead of the ruling Socialists.
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.
This would make the PSD 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.
"I know that we are going to win these elections," PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho said in a message posted on the social networking site Facebook just hours before the ban on campaigning came into effect.
"The country needs a new path and a new energy," he added.
Portugal's three main parties have agreed to the conditions attached to the bailout deal struck in May with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
These include major cuts in public spending on health, education and pensions and jobless benefits 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 how to revive the economy, which is expected to shrink by around two percent this year and the next.
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 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.
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, after Greece and Ireland last year, to request an international bailout because of its inability to meet its refinancing obligations.
Socrates argues 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 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 is seeking an additional 60-billion-euro bailout package to avert a forced debt restructuring.
Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a former PSD prime minister, urged voters to cast their ballots, saying in a message posted Saturday on Facebook that "those who do not vote lose their legitimacy to criticise the government."
"Given the serious social and economic situation in which the country finds itself in, it is the duty of all citizens to say who they feel should assume the responsibility to govern Portugal over the next four years," he added.
The president is scheduled to make a televised address to the nation on Saturday night where he will repeat this message.
© 2011 AFP