Portugal votes Sunday in a general election in which the opposition Socialists are expected to sweep Prime Minister Pedro Santana Lopes' centre-right Social Democrats from office on the back of rising unemployment.
Socialist challenger Socrates, left, stands a good chance of winning
Five of six opinion polls published Friday showed the Socialists led since September by pro-market former environment minister Jose Socrates,
will obtain a majority in the 230-seat parliament for the first time since the country returned to democracy in 1974.
"It is time for the people to speak and I think they will speak very clearly," Socrates told reporters after he cast his ballot in the mountain town of Covilha, located some 300 kilometers (185 miles) northeast of Lisbon.
Portuguese Socialist Party leader Jose Socrates
An admirer of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Socrates has vowed if elected to kick-start the economy by moving Portugal from low-skill industries to more technology-based activities. He also wants to reduce the size of the nation's bloated civil service by 75,000 employees and hold a new referendum on the Roman Catholic country's strict laws against abortion.
The polls gave the Socialists between 45-46 percent of the vote compared to between 27-31 percent for the Social Democrats who have been in office since 2002.
The Socialists blamed a rise in the unemployment rate to 7.1 percent at the end of 2004 -- its highest level since 1998 -- on the government's economic policies and a lack of leadership by Santana Lopes.
Low turnout could hinder Socialists
As the number two in the party, Santana Lopes took over from Jose Manuel Barroso in July when he quit to become the head of the European Commission, the EU executive body.
President Jorge Sampaio, a Socialist who called the early vote in December arguing that the government lacked credibility following a series of gaffes, appealed for a high turnout. "I think everyone should have a say in the destiny of Portugal, the solutions for the problems which the nation faces are in the hands of all Portuguese," he told reporters after he cast his ballot in Lisbon.
Political analysts said a low turnout would hinder the Socialists' chances of obtaining an outright majority in parliament. Some 8.9 million people are eligible to cast ballots in the vote, which will select Portugal's third prime minister in eight months.
As of midday more than one in five, close to 22 percent, of registered voters had cast their ballots, the national election commission said.
The Social Democrats have governed in a coalition with the smaller, right-wing Popular Party which ran alone in the elections. Under Portugal's election system, a modified form of proportional representation, the Socialists will likely get a majority in parliament if they only take 45 percent of the vote, pollsters said.
Lopes suffering lack of credibility
Surveys taken during the campaign showed voters felt Socrates, 47, is more trustworthy and competent than Santana Lopes, whose plans to raise pensions and public sector wages, as well as slash income taxes, this year was dismissed as populism by economists and even senior members of his own party.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, left, and his Portuguese counterpart Pedro Santana Lopes
Only one in five people, 19 percent, said they would buy a used car from Santana Lopes compared to 63 percent who said they would do so from Socrates, a poll published in weekly Expresso a week before the vote found.
Santana Lopes' brief tenure was marked by the resignation of a minister just days after he joined the cabinet, a delay of one month in the start of the school year because teachers were not assigned to their posts on time, and a downgrading of the credit outlook given Portugal by Standard and Poor's.