Portugal elects president amid economic worries

By Barry Hatton

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 23 2011 7:25 a.m. MST

Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates casts his ballot to vote in Portugal's presidential election Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011 in Lisbon.

Francisco Seco, Associated Press

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal's financial crisis weighed heavily in the country's presidential election Sunday, with opinion polls indicating an emphatic victory for the conservative incumbent after the Socialist government enacted deeply unpopular austerity measures.

Though the head of state has no executive powers the re-election of Anibal Cavaco Silva, who is supported by the main opposition Social Democratic Party, would add to political pressure on the minority government as it scrambles to restore confidence in Portugal's ailing economy.

Years of feeble growth have made Portugal one of the 17-nation eurozone's weakest members and deepened Portuguese fears about their country's economic future.

"Voters will take this opportunity to punish the ruling Socialist Party for the country's economic difficulties," said Antonio Barroso, an analyst with Eurasia Group in New York.

Recent polls have predicted around 55 percent of the vote for Cavaco Silva, an economist who was a center-right Social Democrat prime minister from 1985-1995. The center-left Socialist Party's candidate Manuel Alegre is forecast to collect about 25 percent.

Many analysts predict Portugal's economic woes will sooner or later force it to accept a bailout like the ones provided to Greece and Ireland last year.

But the government insists it doesn't need help. It has cut public sector pay and welfare entitlements and hiked taxes to reduce a debt load that threatens to wreck the economy.

The Portuguese head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, told reporters as he voted in Lisbon that the ballot had special meaning because it came at a crucial time for his country. Barroso, a former Social Democrat prime minister, did not elaborate.

The austerity measures prompted dozens of strikes last year, including a 24-hour general strike that shut down many public services. Public transport and mail services are due to be hit again in strikes next month.

During the two-week campaign many comments on phone-in programs and news websites expressed voter anger at how politicians — both the Socialists and the Social Democrats — have managed the economy over the past decade.

Manuel Vasques, a retired engineer voting in Lisbon, said he blamed politicians for leading Portugal into crisis, "but Cavaco (Silva) is the least bad choice" because he understands international financial issues.

The government doesn't face a general election until 2013, but right-of-center opposition parties have warned they may call for a vote of no-confidence in Parliament if the government's policies fail and it resorts to a bailout.

Though the president's job is largely ceremonial, the head of state can play an important role in shaping public perceptions and can indirectly influence how the country is run.

Cavaco Silva has backed the government's belt-tightening program and says he doesn't want to worsen the country's plight by provoking conflicts with the ruling party.

However, he has already spoken out against government plans to jolt the economy through costly public works projects, including a high-speed rail link to neighboring Spain, because he says the country can't afford them. He has also indicated the government should have spared the less well-off from tax hikes.

Four other candidates are running, and the winner must get 50 percent plus one vote or a runoff will be held Feb. 13 for the two top finishers.

Some 9.6 million people are eligible to vote. Results are expected by 2300 GMT.

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