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Europe

Portugal: Socialists and Social Democrats neck-and-neck

With pollsters predicting a too-close-to-call finish between the incumbent conservatives and the Socialists, Portugal's politicians have hit every stop on the campaign trail. A grand coalition has been ruled out.

Young party members milled impatiently around an intersection in front of the volunteer fire station in the northern town of Arcos de Valdevez. Colorful flags waved in the breeze, and an election song in Portuguese disco style blared from a car mounted with loudspeakers: "Our numbers are growing - hey!"

Those with nothing else to do stood at the roadside, waiting for Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho. Their numbers were few at 11 a.m. on a weekday. Still, they were enough for a small photo opportunity, especially after the local campaign manager sent flag-wavers from the young conservatives up the road toward the marketplace. The prime minister arrived at the other end of the road, so the organized welcome ended up having to regroup about 500 meters (1,650 feet) away to greet him.

Election campaigns in

Portugal

mean two weeks of hustle and bustle in the streets and in restaurants: kisses for the kids and elderly ladies in the crowd, exchanging jokes with the fish sellers in the market halls and long meals punctuated with speeches to party supporters. The media is always on hand; for the politicians, it's more about cutting a good figure, and less about their political program.

And, when the talk is about politics, the governing center-right coalition of the Social Democrats (PSD) and the right-wing People's Party (CDS-PP) is keen to stress its main achievement: that it

ended the EU bailout program

and led Portugal

out of the financial crisis

. The center-left Socialists (PS), however, counter that the crisis is not yet over. They argue that the costs of the highly controversial austerity program have hit the people far too hard and the middle class is now much worse off.

Portugal PSD

The right-wing coalition has its share of enduring support

Unenthused electorate

Portugal's electorate just can't seem to muster any enthusiasm for this election.

"I earn less than 700 euros ($785) a month, and I have to count every cent," said a man on the roadside in Arcos de Valdevez. "That's not going to change with a new head of government."

It wasn't just Prime Minister Passos Coelho who had promised further austerity. His main opponent, Antonio Costa (pictured), of the PS has also supported the course set by the European Union. His party also favors sticking with the common currency and further reducing the budget deficit. Only smaller left-wing parties have spoken out against austerity and the euro, but they are unlikely to win the kind of support that could sway the election.

Costa has campaigned for "more purchasing power for families." He says it is possible to reduce taxes and increase the chronically low incomes of Portuguese families. The candidate recently visited a high school and a music school in the industrial town of Agueda, where he railed against the country's massive debt.

After stops in Oliveira de Azemeis and Porto, he arrived for dinner in the Socialist-friendly town of Vila do Conde, where he called Passos Coelho and his deputy, the CDS-PP's Paulo Portas, tricksters and liars. The crowd of about a thousand people clapped loudly and waved PS flags before settling down to a meal of salt cod.

Portugal

"Portugal Forward" is the slogan of the right-wing Social Democrats

Opinion polls have predicted a neck-and-neck race between the governing coalition and PS. It's possible that both groups could fall short of an absolute majority in the next parliament. That would work to the advantage of left-leaning parties, as the opposing major sides have already ruled out a grand coalition. But cooperating with the extremely dogmatic Communists or the populist Bloco da Esquerda would require concessions that the Socialists are unlikely to make.

Passos Coelho could also end up without a majority should he win Sunday's vote - and, on the campaign trail at least, he appeared confident that he would. "I feel the trust growing greater with each passing day," Passos Coelho said during a speech in the picturesque town of Ponte de Lima in the northern region of Minho. Farmers and small business owners sat at the tables, nodding in agreement while they waved their flags for the prime minister. Northern Portugal is very Catholic and conservative, and it was almost a given that the governing coalition would win many votes there.

It was only weeks ago that pollsters had declared Passos Coelho finished in this election, but he has refused to give up. Portugal became a success story under his leadership, he said, slipping in a reference to

Greece

. While

Portugal's jobless rate

had begun to drop and the economy begun to grow, he said, Greece had received its third loan package and must continue to cut spending.

In an interview, Costa said every country must solve its own problems. Portugal will have to face up to its responsibilities, but the euro must also become a fair common currency for economically weaker countries such as Portugal and Spain. "There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution for the problems facing different countries," Costa said. If the PS were to emerge as the strongest party after the vote but lack an absolute majority, Costa said he would build a minority government: "Then we would have to look for a majority in parliament that would allow us to carry out our government program."

Whatever direction Portugal takes will only be known in the late hours of October 4.

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