By Andrei Khalip
LISBON (Reuters) - A billboard campaign designed to show Portugal's main opposition Socialist party as trustworthy has revealed its shiftier side instead, damaging its standing as it gears up for a close-fought parliamentary election in October.
The center-left party, whose last administration collapsed at the height of the country's economic crisis in 2011, used photographs of voters to illustrate posters blaming the current government for the high unemployment rate.
They carried the campaign slogan 'Don't play with the numbers, respect the people', and described the Socialists as 'The Alternative you can Trust'.
But the men and women pictured were not unemployed as the posters claimed, and they say they did not know they would appear on the billboards - prompting an apology from the party and the resignation of its campaign manager.
The faux pas comes as the center-right ruling coalition closes in on the Socialists in opinion polls ahead of the Oct. 4 ballot. Recent polls show the rivals neck-and-neck and both short of a full parliamentary majority.
"This doesn't help the Socialist party, when their ratings are at best steady around 37 percent," said Antonio Costa Pinto, political analyst the University of Lisbon, though he did not expect the party's support to drop as a result.
'THIS IS NOT MY STORY'
One large black and white poster of a young woman carried the quote: "I have been unemployed since 2012, I do not exist for the government. There are more than 220,000 like me."
But the online edition of daily O Observador said the 29-year-old woman in the picture, who it named as Maria Joao Pinto, was in fact working for a district council led by the Socialists when she was photographed late last month.
"This is not my story. That statement is false ... they cannot involve me in this manner," it quoted her as saying.
She said she had only agreed to have a picture taken for the party's campaign, but had not been told how it would be used.
Local media said at least two other posters, one supposedly picturing a man who had been forced to leave Portugal due to unemployment, also carried factual errors.
The Socialist government requested an international bailout in 2011 that imposed painful belt-tightening measures on Portugal, but the administration that succeed it applied the austerity measures that drove taxes to record highs and led to a three-year recession.
The economy returned to growth in 2014 and unemployment has fallen to 11.9 percent from a peak above 17 percent in early 2013.
In an editorial on Monday, influential centrist daily Publico said posters had landed the Socialist party in an "unspeakable mess" that risks damaging it more than it imagined.
The party seems to have moved on already, however, replacing the offending posters with pictures of its leader Antonio Costa carrying the slogan "It's Time for Trust".
(Reporting By Andrei Khalip; editing by John Stonestreet)