Voters reject Portugal austerity policies in local elections
Portuguese voters took out their frustrations on the centre-right coalition and their austerity policies in municipal elections in the country's main cities on Sunday, exit polls suggested.
The opposition Socialists retained power in the capital Lisbon, with an increased share of the vote, and Prime Minister Passos Coelho’s centre-right Social Democratic Party (SDP) lost control of Portugal’s second city Porto.
The SDP also lost out in other major urban centres.
The elections were seen as the first test of the austerity policies championed by the two-year-old centre-right coalition government.
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 government has largely pushed forward with measures to repair public finances as it seeks further disbursements of bailout funding.
However, voters appeared to take their revenge on Sunday.
In Lisbon, the Socialist mayor Antonio Costa won a third term by a wide margin, securing more votes than in the last municipal election in 2009.
He garnered between 51 and 55 percent of the vote according to exit polls conducted by the Catholic University for the public television channel RTP. In 2009, he scored 44 percent.
Costa’s government coalition-backed rival this time, Fernando Seara, received only 21-24 percent of votes, according to the exit poll.
In a surprise result in Porto, independent candidate Rui Moreira beat off challenges from the SDP’s Luis Filipe Menezes and Socialist Manuel Pizarro.
Moreira secured between 36 and 40 percent of the vote against 22 to 25 percent for Menezes and up to 24 percent for Pizarro.
The story was the same for the SDP in Sintra where Socialist candidate Basilio Horta and Marco Almeida, an independent who broke away from the SDP, both scored between 27 and 31 percent.
The coalition’s candidate Pedro Pinto received not more than 16 percent of the vote, according to the Catholic University polling.
In Vila Nova de Gaia, usually a stronghold of the right on the outskirts of Porto, the Socialists’ Eduardo Rodrigues won with 38 to 42 percent of the vote.
Among those who backed the Socialists was economics teacher Alda Camara.
“Passos Coelho is a mere puppet of Angela Merkel. They (the government) are making savings affecting children,” she told AFP. “There are classes in Portugal now without a teacher.”
Some 9.5 million people were eligible to elect representatives for 308 city halls.
The vote came 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.
Prior to the vote, Passos Coelho 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.”