Portugal votes with centre-right poised to oust Socialists


Voters in Portugal went to the polls Sunday in an early election that could see the country join a shift to the right across Europe after eight years of Socialist rule.

Final opinion polls published Friday put the centre-right Democratic Alliance (AD) narrowly ahead of the Socialist Party (PS) but short of an outright majority in parliament, which could make the far-right Chega the kingmaker for a coalition government.

But analysts warned the results of the election, Portugal’s second in two years, remained wide open given the large number of undecided voters. Exit poll projections are expected at 8:00 pm (2000 GMT).

“These elections represent a possible change, there would be little point in doing otherwise,” Pedro Resende, a 56-year-old security officer, told AFP at a polling station in Telheiras, a modern, upper-middle-class neighbourhood in northern Lisbon.

The AD has campaigned on promises to boost economic growth by cutting taxes and to improve public services.

The party’s leader, 51-year-old lawyer Luis Montenegro, said he was “hopeful about the future” after he cast his vote in the northern town of Espinho.

Voter turnout stood at 25.2 percent by midday, up from 23.3 percent at the same point during the last election in 2022.

Montenegro has ruled out any post-election agreement with Chega, but other top AD officials have been more ambiguous. Analysts say a deal with the anti-establishment party may prove the only way for the AD to govern.

– Immigration concerns –

Like other populist far-right parties in Europe, Chega has tapped into concerns about crime and rising immigration.

With one of Europe’s most open immigration regimes, Portugal has seen its foreign-born population double in five years and hit one million last year — one-tenth of the country’s population.

Chega, which means “Enough”, calls for stricter controls over immigration. tougher measures to fight corruption and chemical castration for some sex offenders.

After casting his ballot in Lisbon, Chega leader Andre Ventura — a former trainee priest who went on to become a television football commentator — said it was important people vote because Portugal was “going through deep demographic and social changes”.

Just five years old, Chega picked up its first seat in Portugal’s 230-seat parliament in 2019, becoming the first far-right party to win representation in the assembly since a military coup in 1974 toppled a decades-long right-wing dictatorship.

Chega increased its share to 12 seats in 2022 and polls suggest it could more than double that number this time.

That would mirror gains by far-right parties across Europe, where they already govern — often in coalition — in countries such as Italy, Hungary and Slovakia, or are steadily gaining, as in France and Germany.

– ‘Time for a change’ –

The election was called after Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa, 62, unexpectedly resigned in November following an influence-peddling probe that involved a search of his official residence and the arrest of his chief of staff.

Though Costa himself was not accused of any crime, he decided not to run again.

On his watch unemployment has dropped, the economy expanded by 2.3 percent last year — one of the fastest rates in the eurozone — and public finances have improved.

But surveys indicate many voters feel Costa’s government squandered the outright majority it won in 2022 by failing to improve unreliable public health services and education or to address a housing crisis in what remains one of Western Europe’s poorest countries.

“Things have worsened a bit. It’s time for a change,” Bernardo Guerra, a 28-year-old personal trainer, told AFP after voting at a high school in central Lisbon.

The Socialists’ new leader, 46-year-old former infrastructure minister Pedro Nuno Santos, has defended the government’s record even as he acknowledges it could have done better in some areas.

He has warned the right would have to slash pensions and other social spending to finance promised tax cuts.

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