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Portugal votes in early election, centre-right leads

Some 9.6 million Portuguese are eligible to vote Sunday in an early general election that will decide who will implement a demanding 78 billion euro bailout deal with the EU and the IMF.

Final surveys gave the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), who last ruled between 2002 and 2005, around 36 percent of the vote against 31 percent for Prime Minister Jose Socrates’ Socialists.

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.

The early election was triggered by Socrates’ resignation at the end of March after the opposition, led by the PSD, 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.

All three main parties have said they will respect the terms of the bailout, which include tax hikes, a freeze on state pensions and salaries and a reduction in unemployment benefits as well as their duration.

PSD leader Pedro Passos Coelho has even said he would “go beyond” the bailout terms if elected in terms of privatisations and reforms of labour market laws and public services.

The new government will have to fight joblessness — which stood at a record 12.6 percent in April, the fourth-highest level in the euro zone — with the economy expected to contract by two percent this year and the next.

President Anibal Cavaco Silva urged his compatriots to turn out and vote during a televised address to the nation late on Saturday.

“In democracy all elections are important. But the serious situation the country finds itself in makes tomorrow’s elections especially important,” he said.

Polling stations open at 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and will close at at 7 pm (1800 GMT) with first official results expected two or three hours later.