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Portuguese go to polls with voters resigned to austerity

Miguel Riopa, AFP | A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Massama on the outskirts of Lisbon

The Portuguese voted in a national election on Sunday with polls predicting another win for their austerity-minded, centre-right government that guided them through an economic crisis, though it could fall short of an outright majority.

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The general election is the first since Portugal exited an international bailout last year. The latest polls, released on Friday, gave Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s ruling coalition a lead of between five and 12 points over centre-left Socialist opponent Antonio Costa.

But if Passos Coelho, whose government introduced deep spending cuts and the biggest tax hikes in living memory, fails to secure more than the around 38 percent that he has polled in recent days, he will fall short of an absolute majority in the 230-seat parliament.

Minority government has a dismal history in Portugal and many worry it could endanger Portugal’s fledgling economic recovery.

Waiting outside a polling station in a school in central Lisbon, Nuno Bras, a 45-year-old office worker, said he was not happy with the government, but that it was "a better option than to risk undoing the recovery that has only just begun."

"Another crisis would be fatal for us. The economy is finally growing a bit now, I don’t know if it’s really the government’s merit, but I think they are now more experienced and qualified to run the country than the opposition."

Portugal’s economy returned to growth last year after a three-year recession and growth is accelerating.

Costa, the former mayor of Lisbon, has promised to ease austerity measures and give more disposable income back to families. Costa had about 33 percent support in the latest polls.

Some analysts do not rule out a last-minute upset for either side.

Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and the first partial results are due an hour after they close at 7 p.m.

"All elections are important, but this electoral act is of particular importance for the future of Portugal," President Anibal Cavaco Silva said on Saturday night, urging the Portuguese to vote despite an unfavourable weather forecast.

Some 15 percent of voters were still undecided according to opinion polls on Friday. Adelino Maltez, a political analyst at the Lisbon Technical University, said "there is a possibility of confusion on Sunday night," if there is a very close result that gives no strong victory to any side.

No minority government has survived through its full term since Portugal returned to democracy in 1974. The last Socialist minority government collapsed in 2011 after having to request the bailout.

A victory for the centre-right government goes against the trend seen in other southern European countries, like Spain and Greece, which have tended to punish austerity-minded governments in the past few years.

But even if Costa loses, a left-wing majority in parliament could result in significant upheaval.

"In contrast to the past four years, the domestic political backdrop is set to become less stable, complicating the adoption of economic policies," Antonio Barroso, senior vice president of Teneo Intelligence consultants, wrote in a pre-election note.

(REUTERS)

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