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Socialists Take on Social Democrats in Portugal Polls

Voters in Portugal will decide between the governing Socialists and the opposition Social Democrats in early elections on Sunday. But there's little choice on economic issues.

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Jose Durao Barroso, the center-right Social Democratic party candidate

Portugal's second general election in two and a half years looked set to leave a messy political situation, as voters went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament.

Pre-election surveys had shown the opposition centre-right Social Democrats ahead of the governing Socialists with leads ranging from two to 11 percentage points, but no party was likely to win a simple majority, 50 percent or more.

Fears of abuse of power

That's partly because the Socialists have gained ground since their appalling performance in December's local elections prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Antonio Guterres.

But it's also because of widespread concern about the prospect of a party with a parliamentary majority abusing its power.

Smaller parties issued warnings during the campaign of the corruption they say results from majority governments, which are the exception in this country of 10 million.

Even veteran Socialist politician and former president Mário Soares tempered his endorsement of party leader Eduardo Ferro Rodrigues with a plea for politics not to become polarised between the two main parties.

Portugal Flagge

Portugal Flagge

On the other hand, some voters who toyed with the idea of voting for a smaller party – three of which have seats in parliament – may have taken fright at the prospect of no stable government and plumped for a big party after all.

President Jorge Sampaio, who will face the delicate task of appointing a new prime minister if the result is unclear, is said not to be looking forward to it.

When the vote is countedm, it's quite possible that the Social Democrats will emerge as the single largest party but that the left – the Socialists, the Communists, and the radical Left Block – will together win a majority.

That could undermine the legitimacy of Social Democrat rule and would certainly make governing difficult.

A pointer to wider trends?

Whether Portugal's election result is clear or not, it may be seen abroad as a pointer to wider trends.

The Socialists have been in power since 1995, albeit without a majority, making them among the first of a wave of left-of-centre governments in the European Union.

Right-of-centre politicians across Europe will be tempted to see a rejection of the Socialists here as heralding a broader shift.

But the question is whether this is a fair assessment.

José Manuel Durão Barroso, the man most likely to be the next prime minister, has been accused of being a neo-liberal. He rejects that, but his call for cuts in corporate tax to boost foreign investment and send a positive signal to the markets represents a shift.

Yet, as in other EU states these days, there's little to choose between the two main parties on economic issues.

Governments' room for manoeuvre is limited by Portugal's commitments as a member of the monetary union. And the result will be affected by local factors, not least the Socialists' patchy record.

Brückeneinsturz in Portugal

A foggy view of a part of the 19th century bridge Monday March. 5, 2001 , that collapsed Sunday night in Entre Os Rios, Northern Portugal. A bus carrying 64 people was crossing the bridge before plunging into the river. Rescue officials said they did not expect to find any survivors.

The government never recovered the credibility it once enjoyed after a bridge collapsed in northern Portugal a year ago, killing 70.

For many, the accident symbolised the contrast between showy EU-funded projects and neglect of the country's basic problems.

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