Uncertainty as Portugal goes to the polls

Campaign fliers for Portuguese Prime Minister Passos Coelho's ruling coalition. Tomorrow's elections are likely to go down to the wire.
Campaign fliers for Portuguese Prime Minister Passos Coelho's ruling coalition. Tomorrow's elections are likely to go down to the wire.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Neither ruling coalition nor opposition likely to win absolute majority

LISBON • Portugal's centre-right ruling coalition held a six- to 12-point lead over the main opposition Socialists in key opinion polls ahead of tomorrow's national elections, but remained shy of a margin sufficient to win a majority in Parliament.

The biggest poll so far in the campaign, carried out by the respected Catolica University, showed the coalition with 38 per cent support, against 32 per cent for the centre-left Socialists.

Still, the Catolica poll of 3,302 people, released on Thursday, left the government short of a majority and showed that 15 per cent of voters remained undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 1.7 percentage points.

Another poll, by Marktest, put the coalition on 41 per cent of voting intentions, well ahead of the Socialists on 28.6 per cent. Other polls have indicated a much tighter race, even though the austerity-minded ruling alliance has gained in recent months while the Socialists held steady or slipped somewhat.

Pollsters say neither side is likely to win an absolute majority in the 230-seat Parliament and 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.

"The absence of an absolute majority, along with the lack of a clear direction, could be a negative sign for markets," said Ms Paula Carvalho, chief economist at Portuguese bank BPI.

But a bailout programme for Portugal, which it completed in May last year, has not sparked the major unrest that thrust radical anti-bailout parties into the spotlight in Spain and Greece. The communist party remains the country's largest hard-left force, with around 10 per cent support.

Prime Minister Passos Coelho, a 51-year-old economist, is campaigning on his record of having steered 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$124 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, making it the third euro zone country after Ireland and Greece to receive a financial rescue package.

Portugal's exit from the bailout scheme came only after the government imposed deep spending cuts and the biggest tax hikes in living memory.

The jobless rate has fallen to 12 per cent from a peak of 17.5 per cent at the beginning of 2013.

"After the crisis, an economic recovery emerged, which plays in favour of the governing coalition," political analyst Jose Antonio Passos Palmeira told AFP.

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.

With apathy gripping many voters, pollsters predict the numbers opting to stay at home may even surpass the record 41.9 per cent recorded in the last elections.

"I don't vote any more for anyone. It is always the same parties, the same promises, and nothing changes," said 72-year-old pensioner Herminio Batista.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Uncertainty as Portugal goes to the polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe