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Portugal set to vote austerity government back into power

Published on 02/10/2015

Portugal could make eurozone history this weekend by becoming the first bailed-out country to re-elect a government which pushed through harsh austerity measures.

Final polls showed the ruling conservative coalition is on course to win Sunday’s general election, although it is likely to lose its parliamentary majority.

With the Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his Socialist rival Antonio Costa preparing to hold their final rallies in the capital on Friday night, the outgoing government was on average five points ahead, according to the last three polls.

A victory for the right would be a huge turn up for the books, with Costa — a popular former mayor of Lisbon — ahead in polls as late as July, and Passos Coelho himself admitting he expected to be the fall guy for anger at the drastic cuts demanded by the country’s creditors.

One poll late on Thursday put his centre-right Social Democrats and their conservative Popular Party partners at 38 percent of the vote with the opposition Socialists on 32 percent.

The survey by the Catholic University estimated that the ruling coalition would win between 99 and 114 seats in the 230-member parliament, just short of the 116 needed for an absolute majority.

Another poll, for the Eurosondagem institute — which had made the Socialists slight favourites over the summer — had the governing coalition winning between 102 and 108 seats.

Portugal has not seen such a tight election race since it became a democracy in 1974 after nearly five decades of dictatorship.

– Poverty and emigration –

Western Europe’s poorest country is still recovering from its 2011 economic crisis when it became the third eurozone country after Ireland and Greece to be bailed out.

It left the bailout scheme in May 2014 but only after implementing stringent austerity that saw a fifth of incomes fall below the poverty threshold of 500 euros a month.

Passos Coelho has benefited from a modest lift in the economy this year and has warned that his rival’s plans to lower taxes and ease off on austerity would set the country back.

His campaign has hammered home the slogan that a vote for Costa would mean a “return to the old populist politics which pushed the country to the brink of bankrupcy”.

The message seems to have got through. “Financial rigour was a necessary evil and now confidence is coming back,” said Frederico Leite, a 37-year-old salesman, who has seen his own income fall by the fifth.

Vanda Pereira, however, is not convinced. “It is clear that we have not come out of the crisis,” said the single mother, who earns 550 euros a month working 13 hours a day in a hotel.

“I am not even going to vote,” she said. “And if I didn’t have a 12-year-old daughter I would have left the country.”

Portugal has lost nearly half a million people in the last four years — most young and highly-educated — as huge public spending cuts helped push unemployment to a high of 17 percent.

Although emigrants do have the right to vote, few are likely to use it, with the abstention rate likely to top the record of 42 percent set at the last election in 2011.