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The three leaders vying for power in Portugal

As Portugal goes to the polls Sunday, we profile the leading players in an election dominated by the punishing austerity measures the country had to sign up to to stay in the eurozone:

– Premier Pedro Passos Coelho –

Portugal’s dogged prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho may lack obvious charisma, but he does have a fine baritone voice for singing fado, the Portuguese blues.

Most of his time in charge of western Europe’s poorest country has been a long tale of woe straight from one of the famously depressing fado dirges of heartache and hard times — record unemployment, emigration and a national debt which threatens to weigh down generations to come.

This is normally not the stuff that leads to a second term in office. But in a huge turnaround of his fortunes, polls are predicting that Passos Coelho, 51, will be narrowly returned to power in Sunday’s general election.

The leader of the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) has stubbornly survived a series of crises and monster protests against the austerity forced on the country by its creditors, to emerge as the election favourite, much to his own surprise.

“If I have to one day lose an election to save the country, so what,” he told his party a year after coming to power in 2012.

He has been much helped by the corruption scandal that has hamstrung the opposition socialists, with former prime minister Jose Socrates — who did the bailout deal with the country’s lenders in 2011 — under house arrest as investigators probe his financial affairs.

Passos Coelho’s own image has also taken a battering from a controversy over his failure to pay social security contributions for five years.

Such revelations while he was asking his fellow citizens to make unprecedented sacrifices did not go down well, undermining his reputation for thrift and modesty.

– Opposition leader Antonio Costa –

Antonio Costa is far more popular than his Socialist Party, who were in charge when Portugal had to go cap in hand to Europe and the IMF in 2011.

And everywhere he turns is the spectre of his old mentor Jose Socrates — the former socialist prime minister now under house arrest accused of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion.

That has not stopped the affable former mayor of Lisbon from vowing to lift the country off its knees in the same way as he raised spirits in the capital, moving his office into the drug and prostitution-infested Mouraria area when he first came to power in 2007.

Costa, 54, tried to surf the anti-austerity wave sweeping Europe after Greek premier Alexis Tsipras first took power in Athens earlier this year, but as Syriza’s radical ambitions unravelled in the face of German intransigence, he has been back-peddling wildly.

“The Socialist Party is not Syriza,” he has been forced to insist to counter government claims that the left’s return to power would lead to a repeat of tax and spend policies.

In an attempt to head off the critics, Costa — who likes to relax by doing 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles — has produced costings of his campaign promises including a return to a 35-hour week for public servants and a rise in the minimum wage.

“I always deliver more than I promise,” he declared, pointing to his record as mayor of Lisbon, where he has been elected three times, with a bigger majority each time.

But it is for his constant smile and his common touch as a lover of Portugal’s twin passions of football and fado, that he is best known. Whether he will be smiling as the results come in on Sunday night is another question.

– Young radical Mariana Mortagua –

Mariana Mortagua, the 29-year-old rising star of the radical left, may have called some of Portugal’s most powerful bankers to account for their part in plunging the country into crisis, but her party is unlikely to rock the political boat in this election.

Her Left Bloc hopes to harness the anger of those who have suffered most from the financial straitjacket into which the country has been put by its creditors.

Yet despite one in five people earning less than 5,000 euros ($5,600) a year, the Bloc has not been able to emulate the success of Podemos in neighbouring Spain or its Greek sister party Syriza.

With Left Bloc scoring no more than eight percent in polls, Mortagua is still bullish. “Syriza failed but it opened a breach in the European Union that will never be closed,” she said.

She first made headlines in late 2014 with her grilling of leading bankers called before a parliamentary commission into the collapse of the Banco Espirito Santo.

Even the bank’s former chief Ricardo Salgado had to admit she had “great analytical qualities” after he found himself at the sharp end of her questioning.

“It was like a reality TV show — the first time the financial and economic elite of the country were made to face up to their responsibilities,” said Mortagua, one of the party’s leaders, who is heading its list of candidates in the capital Lisbon.

The daughter of an anti-fascist activist who helped bring down the Salazar dictatorship in the 1970s, her twin sister Joana is also standing for the party.

“A very old Portuguese elite still think they can run the country to suit themselves,” she said.

Mortagua learned early that protest works, lobbying the mayor of her village in the Alentejo region for a pedestrian crossing outside her school. She was six at the time, and she got the crossing.