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Portugal’s Socialists win election marked by far right gains: exit polls

Portugal’s ruling Socialists won Sunday’s early election by a wide margin but may still fall short of an outright majority while the far right made huge gains, exit polls showed.

Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s party received between 37 percent and 42.5 percent of the vote, compared to between 27 percent to 35 percent for the main opposition centre-right PSD, according to the polls for TV stations RTP, SIC and TVI.

That would give the Socialists 100 to 118 seats in the 230-seat parliament, up from 108 in the outgoing assembly.

A party needs at least 116 seats to have an absolute majority.

At the Socialist party’s campaign headquarters, supporters stood up cheering as the projected results were published.

Costa, 60, told state broadcaster RTP that while it was “not likely” that his party obtained an absolute majority, “there was clearly increased voting for the Socialist party”.

“This means the Portuguese want the Socialists to govern,” he added.

Costa had said during the campaign that he planned to govern alone if the Socialists failed to secure a majority, negotiating support from other parties for laws on a case-by-case basis.

A significant development was the rise of upstart far-right party Chega, which won up to 8.5 percent of the vote, which could make it the third-biggest party in the assembly with six to 14 seats.

The party has from just one lawmaker in the outgoing assembly and its rise mirrors gains for other populist far-right formations elsewhere in Europe.

“I think people understood our message,” Chega leader Andre Ventura, a former TV football commentator, told reporters.

The early election came as the nation of around 10 million people tries to boost its tourism-dependent economy which has been badly hit by the pandemic.

A stable government is needed for Portugal to make the most of a 16.6 billion euros ($18.7 billion) package of European Union recovery funds it is due to receive by 2026.

– ‘Stability is needed’ –

Costa has relied on two far-left parties — the left Bloc and the Communist Party — to underpin two minority Socialist governments since 2015.

But they turned against him in October and joined forces with the right to vote down his draft 2022 budget, prompting Sunday’s early election.

The two far-left parties were apparently punished by voters as both lost votes, according to the exit polls.

The Socialists had a comfortable lead when the election was called but the PSD managed to close the gap as the polls neared.

During the final week of the campaign Costa repeatedly warned that a PSD-led government would be a “hostage” to Chega, whose proposals include castrating sex offenders and tighter Covid-19 restrictions on the Roma community.

Rio had vowed not to include Chega in a government but has indicated he is willing to head a minority government propped up by support in parliament from the far right.

Catia Reis, a 39-year-old human resources manager, said she had voted for the Socialists because “stability is needed”.

“It is not the moment for a political change,” she added after casting her ballot at a Lisbon polling station.

– Skills and experience –

While there is a “certain disenchantment” with the Socialists, most voters feel Costa has “more skills and experience to govern” than PSD leader Rui Rio, said University of Lisbon political scientist Marina Costa Lobo.

Under Costa’s watch, Portugal has rolled back austerity measures, maintained fiscal discipline and slashed unemployment to pre-pandemic levels.

The country also achieved the highest immunisation rate against Covid-19 in Europe, with over 90 percent of its population fully vaccinated.

But the PSD’s Rio argues the economy should expand faster.

He had called for lower corporate taxes to spur growth.

Portugal’s Socialist party is faring better than its peers in many other European nations such as Greece and France where they have been virtually wiped off the map in recent years.