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Portugal’s ruling centre-right in clear election lead

Portugal’s ruling centre-right coalition was the clear leader in Sunday’s general election, first results and exit polls showed, although it may not hold onto its absolute majority in parliament.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s “Portugal Ahead” coalition was ahead with 40.04 percent of the vote, early results showed, followed by 31.65 percent for the opposition Socialists led by the former mayor of Lisbon Antonio Costa.

Three exit polls commissioned by television stations projected similar results.

If first results are reflected elsewhere, it would be a huge turn up for the books for a government which pushed through four years of swingeing austerity, which sent unemployment and emigration soaring in western Europe’s poorest country.

Passos Coelho campaigned on his record of having returned the country to fragile growth after one of the worst crises in its history, warning that the oppositon Socialists could undo all his good work.

His victory could signal a turning of the tide in Europe, with the austerity governments of its neighbour Spain and fellow eurozone bailout survivors Ireland about to face their electorates in the coming months.

“We have had very tough times in past four years, with a lot of sacrifices. I am confident in the work I have done,” Passos Coelho told journalists after voting in a Lisbon suburb earlier in the day.

His coalition, in power since 2011, had trailed the Socialists led by Antonio Costa, a popular former mayor of Lisbon, in the polls until July.

The Socialists have vowed to ease the painful reforms they claim went further than its creditors demanded.

“The Portuguese want a change of government and policies, and open a new cycle of hope,” Costa said after casting his ballot.

But many believe the Socialists have lost the propaganda battle. “The right has succeeded in getting across the message that returning the Socialists would lead the country to bankruptcy,” political scientist Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

Other analysts warned that if there is no clear winner Portugal risks a period of instability that could endanger its fragile recovery.

Despite fears of voter apathy, turnout was marginally up on the last election in 2011, with 44.38 percent having cast their ballots by 4:00 pm local time (1500 GMT).

“Nothing will change anyway, austerity will continue,” said Manuel Augusto, 75, who said he voted for the Socialists.

Some among the more than 9.6 million electorate were more optimistic.

“I voted for those in power. Today, the country is doing a bit better,” said Domingos Birra, a 71-year-old pensioner.

– Impact of Greek crisis –

Passos Coelho, a 51-year-old economist, campaigned on his record of having navigated Portugal safely through the debt crisis and to a return to growth last year after three years of recession.

When he came to power in June 2011, Portugal was on the verge of defaulting on its debt mountain.

His Socialist predecessor, Jose Socrates, had just asked for a 78 billion euro ($88 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, making it the third eurozone country after Ireland and Greece to receive a financial rescue package.

Portugal exited the bailout scheme in May 2014, but only after the government imposed harsh austerity measures and the biggest tax hikes in living memory.

The jobless rate has since fallen to 12 percent from a peak of 17.5 percent at the beginning of 2013.

But the recovery has yet to be felt on the streets. One in five Portuguese continue to live below the poverty line with an annual income of less than 5,000 euros ($5,600).

Unlike Spain or Greece, Portugal has not seen the rise of a protest movement strong enough to challenge traditional parties at the polls.

The Greek crisis, which has been followed very closely by Portuguese voters, have may even have boosted the centre-right coalition.

“The attempt by Greece’s Syriza party to put an end to austerity has failed. Suddenly Portuguese voters see that there really is not alternative,” to austerity, political analyst Jose Antonio Passos Palmeira told AFP.

While the Socialists have pledged to lower personal taxes and reversing public sector pay cuts, the party has promised to stick to European budget rules.

– ‘Instability’ –

And Socialist leader Costa, 54, has struggled to distance himself from his scandal-hit predecessor Socrates, who served as premier from 2005-11.

Socrates, 58, was detained in November 2014 on suspicion of corruption and money laundering and is currently under house arrest.

Costa hardened his tone in the final weeks of the campaign, saying the Socialists would vote against the budget if the centre-right is re-elected.

Passos Coelho responded by warning that such a move could cause “instability that could lead to new elections in a very short time”.

Costa, a fearsome negotiator, could block a minority centre-right government by joining forces with the Left Block and the Communists, who together have between 16 and 18 percent support.