Portugal's election puts austerity policies to the test

Portugal's Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho leaving the polling station with his wife after casting their votes in Massama.
Portugal's Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho leaving the polling station with his wife after casting their votes in Massama.PHOTO: REUTERS

LISBON • Portuguese voters yesterday cast ballots to give their verdict on four years of austerity by either re-electing the centre-right coalition that steered the country through a punishing bailout or turning to the Socialists who promise to ease painful reforms.

Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho's "Portugal Ahead" coalition - joining his centre-right Social Democratic Party with the conservative Popular Party - has made a surprising comeback in opinion polls, with most putting it ahead despite the harsh cuts it has enacted.

The coalition, in power since 2011, had 37.5 per cent support against 32.5 per cent for the main opposition Socialists led by Mr Antonio Costa, a popular former mayor of Lisbon, in the latest surveys.

Analysts warn that Portugal risks a period of political instability just as it seeks to safeguard an economic recovery after emerging from a debt crisis.

Polling stations opened yesterday at 8am (0700 GMT), with the first results expected around 12 hours later.

Mr Coelho, a 51-year-old economist, is campaigning on his record of having navigated the country safely through the debt crisis and to a return to growth last year after three years of recession.

When he came to power in June 2011, Portugal was on the verge of defaulting on its mountain of debt.

His Socialist predecessor, Mr Jose Socrates, had just asked for a €78 billion (S$125 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Portugal exited the bailout scheme in May 2014, but only after the government imposed harsh austerity measures and the biggest tax hikes in living memory.

But the recovery has yet to be felt on the streets. One in five Portuguese continues to live below the poverty line with an annual income of less than €5,000.

Unlike Spain or Greece, Portugal has not seen the rise of a protest party strong enough to challenge traditional parties at the polls.

The Greek crisis, which has been followed closely by Portuguese voters, could even give a boost to the ruling centre-right coalition.

"The attempt by Greece's Syriza party to put an end to austerity has failed.

"Suddenly Portuguese voters see that there really is no alternative" to austerity, political analyst Jose Antonio Passos Palmeira said.

With apathy gripping many voters, pollsters predict the numbers opting to stay at home may even surpass the record 42 per cent registered in the last election.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'Portugal's election puts austerity policies to the test'. Print Edition | Subscribe