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Portugal's incumbent Socialists on top in election: exit polls

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Lisbon (AFP)

Portugal's incumbent Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa's Socialists took the lead in a general election on Sunday after presiding over a period of solid economic growth following years of austerity, exit polls showed.

The Socialist Party (PS) garnered 34-40 percent of the vote followed by the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD) with 24-31 percent, according to the exit polls for television stations RTP, TVI and SIC.

That would give the Socialists between 100 to 117 seats in the 230-seat parliament, up from 86, compared with 68 to 82 seats for the PSD, which has been riddled by internal divisions. A party needs at least 116 seats to have an absolute majority.

If confirmed the results buck the trend of declining centre-left fortunes and the rise of far-right populist forces seen elsewhere in Europe.

Former Lisbon mayor Costa, a shrewd strategist, will most likely need the support of other formations to govern.

After the last general election in 2015 in which the PS finished second, Costa convinced two smaller hard-left parties -- the Communists and the Left Bloc -- to support a minority Socialist government, an unprecedented alliance that foes nicknamed the "geringonca", or odd contraption.

The Left Bloc won 17 to 26 seats while the Communists won seven to 14, according to the exit polls, meaning Costa could ally with the two parties again to pass legislation.

But reaching an agreement this time around will likely be more difficult as the hard-left parties are demanding more public spending which Costa, who has presented himself as the guardian of sound pubic finances, has up until now opposed.

The election gives Costa, 58, another potential governing partner as the exit polls indicate the upstart People-Animals-Nature party (PAN) won two to six seats, up from just one when it first entered parliament in the last election in 2015.

- Economic success -

After coming to power in 2015, Costa undid some of the unpopular austerity measures introduced by the previous PSD-led government in return for a 78-billion-euro ($85 billion) international bailout that kept finances afloat after Portugal was clobbered by the eurozone debt crisis.

Taking advantage of the global economic recovery, he reversed cuts to public sector wages and pensions while still managing to bring the budget deficit down to nearly zero this year -- the lowest level since Portugal's return to democracy in 1974.

On his watch Portugal's economic growth was higher than the European Union average in recent years -- 2.4 percent in 2018 -- while the jobless rate fell to 6.4 percent, the level before the debt crisis, but critics complain of low salaries, job precarity and soaring property prices amid a tourism boom.

The PS had enjoyed a double-digit lead over the PSD for many months but the gap between Portugal's two main parties shrunk in the final stretch of the campaign, especially after a scandal concerning former defence minister Jose Azeredo Lopes resurged.

Lopes was charged last week with abuse of power and denial of justice over his role in the alleged cover-up of an arms theft from a military depot in June 2017.

The normally affable Costa made a misstep on Friday during the last day of the campaign.

When an elderly voter challenged him during a final campaign appearance on Friday in Lisbon over the government's handling of wildfires in central Portugal in June 2017 that killed more than 60 people, Costa lost his temper in images that quickly went viral.

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