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Voters give Portugal’s austerity policy first test

Portuguese voters took part in municipal elections Sunday seen as a first test of the austerity policies of the two-year-old centre-right coalition government.

“Whether they are from the right or the left, the Portuguese hope the government will be punished in one way or another” for fully applying the austerity policies prescribed by international creditors, political scientist Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

In exchange for a 78 billion euro ($105 billion) rescue package in May 2011, Portugal’s government has imposed tax hikes and wage and pension cuts in a bid to balance the budget, aggravating a downturn that has sent unemployment to a record 17.7 percent at the beginning of this year.

Despite growing discontent, the Portuguese government has largely pushed forward with measures to repair public finances as it seeks further disbursements of bailout funding.

Claudia Madruga, a young resident of Lisbon, said she cast a blank vote, convinced that nothing would change.

“It is always the same people that stand, the same politics,” she said.

Economics teacher Alda Camara voted for the Socialist opposition, she told AFP.

“(Prime Minister Pedro) Passos Coelho is a mere puppet of Angela Merkel. They (the government) are making savings affecting children,” she said. “There are classes in Portugal now without a teacher.”

The vote comes as auditors from the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are in Lisbon to review Portugal’s progress and decide whether to release a 5.5 billion euro loan instalment.

Some 9.5 million people are eligible to elect representatives for 308 city halls, with polling stations set to close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).

Opinion polls put the Socialists in the lead with 38 percent followed by Passos Coelho’s conservative Social Democrat party on 26.5 percent.

Polls forecast a big victory for the incumbent socialist mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Costa.

Independent candidates are running in several races, including in Portugal’s second city Porto, which is currently in the hands of the conservative Social Democrats.

The latest polls give independent candidate Rui Moreira the lead over conservative Luis Filipe Menezes.

Passos Coelho himself has insisted that “the municipal election results will have no effect on national policy.”

But he conceded Sunday that “even if this is not a national election, the results of the local vote must be considered at a national level.”

The opposition Socialists hope to capitalise on the discontent in Portuguese households, with party leader Antonio Jose Seguro urging voters to “make the right choice on Sunday”.