Portugals Socialists win election, lack majority: exit polls


Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates’ Socialists won a general election on Sunday but failed to retain their majority in parliament with which they imposed ambitious reforms over the past four years, exit polls showed.

The party secured between 99 and 106 seats in the 230-seat assembly, compared to 121 in the last election, against between 69 and 77 seats for the opposition centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD), according to the polls released by television stations RTP and SIC after voting stations closed.

It is the first time that a government with an absolute majority has been returned to office for a second term with a minority in parliament and the results point to a possible period of political instability at a time of mounting economic challenges.

Only one minority government has survived its full term since the end of dictatorship in 1974, that of former Socialist premier Antonio Guterres between 1995 and 1999.

It relied on agreements with opposition parties to pass legislation on a case by case basis.

With the unemployment rate at a 22-year-high of 9.1 percent and climbing, Socrates promised massive public works projects, such as a high-speed rail network and a new airport near Lisbon, to help create jobs. Profile: Socrates, Portugal’s reform-minded Socialist PM

The PSD, weakened by a long-standing internal power struggle, opposed the projects on the grounds that they will increase Portugal’s already high debt level, while also arguing that the private sector should drive economic growth.

But the party failed to make concrete proposals of its own and analysts said this, combined with a perceived lack of charisma by its leader, former finance minister Manuela Ferreira Leite, 68, made it hard for the PSD to capitalise on the nation’s economic woes.

“By focusing her entire strategy on criticism of the government without making alternative proposals, Ferreira Leite failed to excite the electorate,” University of Lisbon politics professor Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

The employment minister in Socrates’ outgoing cabinet, Jose Vieira da Silva, said “the Socialists obtained a clear victory in difficult conditions, after having implemented important reforms and having been shaken by a serious economic crisis.”

During his first term in office Socrates, 52, used this majority to reform the state pension system, as well as health and education, and make the labour market more flexible.

Some of the measures, combined with his belligerent style, alienated many groups of voters directly affected by the reforms such as teachers, judges and police, who staged noisy street protests throughout his first term.

Socrates says his reforms were derailed by the global financial crisis which erupted last year but he argues they have helped the country cope better with the economic downturn than many of its European peers.

Portugal posted gross domestic product growth of 0.3 percent in the second quarter, making it one of the first nations in Europe, along with economic heavyweights France and Germany, to show signs of emerging from recession.

The country’s unemployment rate, while rising, is below the European Union average and is just half the rate in neighbouring Spain.

Anger over the government’s reforms drove many Socialist voters to the hard left.

The Communist-Green Party coalition won between 13 and 15 seats and the Left Bloc, which called for the nationalization of banks and insurance firms, between 18 and 20 seats, according to the SIC exist poll.

The Communists and the far-left Left Block have both rejected forming a coalition with the Socialists, whom they accuse of adopting right-wing economic policies under Socrates.

But the Communists have left the door open to cooperation with the Socialists on individual legislation.

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