Portugal winds up election campaign with centre-right ahead

3rd June 2011, Comments 0 comments

Portuguese party leaders made a final push for votes Friday, two days before an early general election will decide who will implement the nation's 78-billion-euro bailout agreement with the EU and IMF.

Polls show the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), who have vowed to put in place economic reforms that "go beyond" those agreed with the EU and IMF in exchange for the bailout funds, have extended their edge in recent days over Prime Minister Jose Socrates' Socialists ahead of Sunday's election.

The PSD has the backing of around 36 percent of voters against 31 percent support for the Socialists, polls published Friday in Publico and Expresso showed. Last week the parties were virtually neck-and-neck.

Socrates, 53, and PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho, 46, have until midnight to convince undecided voters before Saturday's "day of reflection" when campaigning and the publication of polls of voting intentions is banned.

Both candidates were spending the last day of the campaign in Lisbon, with large rallies planned for the evening.

Passos Coelho accuses the Socialists, in power since 2005, of having steered Portugal to the brink of bankrupcy.

He has stepped up his attacks on the government over the past week, warning that if Socrates is re-elected "within six months" Portugal could find itself in the same "tragic" situation as Greece, which look likely to need a second bailout package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

"We can't commit the mistake carried out by other countries that had to resort to foreign aid," he said Monday in the northern town of Ponte de Lima.

PSD supporters carried Passos Coelho on their shoulders during an outdoor rally in Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, on Thursday as he was surrounded by a sea of orange party flags.

The early election was triggered by Socrates' resignation at the end of March after his minority government failed to pass its fourth package of austerity measures in just under a year in parliament.

Just a few weeks later Lisbon was forced to ask for in international bailout to keep the country of around 10.6 million people from bankruptcy.

Socrates has been hurt by record high unemployment and the fact that, even though he argues he did everything to avoid a bailout, it was under his watch that Lisbon resorted to international emergency loans.

Portugal's jobless rate stood at 12.6 percent in April, the fourth-highest among the 17 nations using the euro currency -- after Spain, Ireland and Slovakia.

Socrates blames the PSD, which had backed previous austerity measures, for provoking a political crisis to topple the government "out of a greed for power".

His speech at a rally late on Thursday in the northern town of Barcelos was briefly interrupted when a small group threw eggs at the stage before fleeing. No one was hit.

While support for the PSD has risen, it still falls short of what is needed for the party to have an absolute majority in parliament, meaning it will likely reach out to the smaller conservative CDS-PP party to govern.

Analysts said Passos Coelho's promise to impose deeper reforms than those agreed to with the IMF and the EU had limited the PSD's rise in the polls.

"This has prevented the PSD from registering a sharper rise in the polls than would be expected if you take into account the difficult situation that the country finds itself in," said Andre Freire, a political scientist at Lisbon's Centre for Sociology Research and Studies.

All three main parties signed the bailout agreement, which requires Portugal to reduce its public deficit to 5.9 percent of GDP by the end of the year from 9.1 percent last year.

© 2011 AFP

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