Portugal heads to the polls in decisive parliamentary elections, analysts predict a tie

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Portugal’s socialist prime minister Antonio Costa is facing a high-stakes snap parliamentary election in which the far-right could make a breakthrough.

Polling stations opened at 8 am on Sunday, and exit poll projections will be released by 8 pm.

“We have defeated austerity and stagnation, we were defeating the pandemic and on Sunday we will also defeat this political crisis and return stability to the country,” Costa said on Friday, closing his campaign.

The 60-year-old leader, who came to power in 2015, boasts of having “turned the page” on the austerity budget implemented by the right, thanks to the historic alliance he forged with radical left-wing parties, the Left Bloc and the Communist-Green coalition.

But while his minority government also intended to “turn the page on the pandemic” thanks to impressive vaccination rates and the arrival of European funds from the post-coronavirus recovery plan, these parties rejected his draft budget for 2022, leading to the call for early elections.

Portugal’s economy has been falling behind the rest of the 27-nation EU since 2000 when its real annual gross domestic product per capita was €16,230 compared with an EU average of €22,460.

By 2020, Portugal had edged higher to €17,070 while the bloc’s average surged to €26,380.

When the election date was set three months ago, polls gave Costa’s Socialist Party, or PS, a 13-point lead over the main opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD).

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Voters disenchanted with PS, still trust Costa’s skills

Meanwhile, this advantage has all but evaporated. In the latest surveys, the PS was credited with 35 or 36 per cent of voting intentions, against 33 per cent for the PSD of the former mayor of Porto, Rui Rio.

Faced with this gap, the pollsters reserved their prediction and declared a “technical tie”.

With one in ten Portuguese in quarantine, the turnout for the election — the third Portugal has held during the pandemic — is another factor of uncertainty.

In an election-eve address to the nation, president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa urged people to vote, saying it is “a way of saying that … nothing and nobody can silence our voice”.

“I wanted to vote early in the morning, first of all for safety reasons, because there are fewer people,” said Duarte Raposo, a 33-year-old executive, as he left a polling station in Almada, a southern suburb of Lisbon.

“It’s always important to vote, I’ve never missed it,” said Antonio Xavier, an 84-year-old pensioner. “I find campaigns very tiring and repetitive,” added the former shipbuilding mechanic.

Despite a certain disenchantment with the Socialist Party, most voters believe that Costa has more skills and experience to govern than Rio, a 64-year-old economist who is appreciated for his “frankness and authenticity”, said political scientist Marina Costa Lobo.

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Predictions of unstable political future

Whatever the outcome of the elections, Portugal’s political future looks “unstable”, says analyst Antonio Costa Pinto, a researcher at the University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences.

“The viability of a PS or PSD government will depend on the abstention of the other major party, especially in order to quickly adopt an economic recovery budget,” he predicts.

Regardless of which of the two wins, it will be complicated for the more moderate mainstream parties to negotiate support from the extremes in a more fragmented parliament, where the far-right Chega! (Enough!) party, led by populist André Ventura, could become the third political force with 6 per cent of the vote.

If Costa is re-elected, he will try to reunite the left despite the failure of the last budget negotiations, which he said was caused by the “irresponsibility” of his former allies, who were demanding more efforts in favour of purchasing power and public services.

Since it came to power in 2015, PS had relied on the support of their smaller allies in parliament to ensure the annual state budget had enough votes to pass.

But last November, their differences, especially over public health spending and workers’ rights, were insurmountable, eventually leading to the snap elections.

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And if Rio wins, he will probably have to join forces with the Liberals who, like Chega!, are hoping the results will confirm the substantial gains predicted by the polls.

The Liberals, who also had one elected member in the previous parliament, should, however, find it easier to get along with Rio than Chega. With his anti-institutional rhetoric, Ventura appears to be a rather volatile potential partner.

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