Economic woes overshadow vote

Portuguese voters head to the polls on Sunday in a general election overshadowed by economic woes. Prime Minister Jose Socrates (photo) has promised reforms to try to jump-start one of Western Europe’s poorest economies.


AFP - Portugal voted Sunday in an election that left the nation the choice between ruling Socialists pledging a spending spree to create jobs and a centre-right opposition calling for belt-tightening to battle a ballooning deficit.

Opinion polls said Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates would win re-election but lose the absolute majority in the 230-seat parliament that had allowed him to impose his reform agenda over the past four years.

Socrates has promised public works projects, such as a high-speed rail network and a new airport near Lisbon, to keep the economy moving.

The centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD), led by former finance minister Manuela Ferreira Leite, argues that Portugal cannot afford the projects and that the private sector should drive growth.

"I have always voted for the Socialists and I don't see another alternative. Socrates was the first with the will to carry out reforms that were urgently needed," said 69-year-old Ines after she cast her ballot in central Lisbon.

Voting in the proportional representation election closes at 1800 GMT but the first estimates will only be given one hour later.

Ferreira Leite, 68, the first woman to lead a major political party in Portugal, accuses the Socialists of "handing debts to future generations" but has failed to outline specific cuts to rein in the ballooning public deficit.

Portugal's unemployment rate has risen to 9.1 percent, its highest level in over two decades, and is predicted to keep rising, while the public deficit is expected to hit nearly 6.0 percent of output this year.

Analysts said the lack of concrete proposals from the PSD and Ferreira Leite's austere style had made it difficult for the party to capitalise on the economic woes.

"By focusing her entire strategy on criticism of the government without making alternative proposals, Ferreira Leite failed to excite the electorate," University of Lisbon politics professor Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

Socrates, 52, was elected in a landslide in 2005 on promises of reviving the economy through increased investment in research and development and greater computer and Internet access.

In office he has also made labour market more flexible and reformed the health and education systems, leading to protests by teachers, civil servants and others directly affected by the changes.

Socrates says his reforms were derailed by the global financial crisis which erupted last year but he argues they have helped the country cope better with the economic downturn than many of its European peers.

Portugal posted gross domestic product growth of 0.3 percent in the second quarter, making it one of the first nations in Europe, along with economic heavyweights France and Germany, to show signs of emerging from recession.

The country's unemployment rate, while rising, is below the European Union average and is just half the rate in neighbouring Spain.

Anger over the government's reforms have driven many Socialist voters to the hard left, the Communist-Green Party coalition and the Left Bloc.

"I voted for the Bloc because we need to have a strong opposition on the left of the Socialists," said 29-year-old Tomas.

Both the Left Bloc and the Communists have rejected forming an alliance with the Socialists although the Communists have left the door open to cooperation with the party on a case by case basis.

Only one minority government has survived its full term since the end of a right-wing dictatorship in 1974, that of former Socialist premier Antonio Guterres between 1995 and 1999.

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