Portugal eyes political balance in presidential election

AP News
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Posted: Jan 10, 2016 10:46 AM
Portugal eyes political balance in presidential election

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — With an alliance of Socialists, communists and radicals holding power, Portuguese voters appear set to seek some balance by electing a center-right politician as their head of state.

A two-week official campaign period for the presidential election started Sunday, and the favorite is Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a former Social Democratic Party leader and law professor who until recently had a popular TV show.

Opinion polls suggest he could get more than 50 percent of votes in the Jan. 24 ballot against nine rivals, of which former Socialist minister Maria de Belem Roseira and the independent Antonio de Sampaio da Novoa are closest.

The most recent survey says that Rebelo de Sousa has 52.5 percent support, 34.4 percentage points ahead of second-place De Belem Roseira. The poll was conducted on Dec. 16-21, with 1,515 people interviewed by phone, and it had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points. The survey was published Dec. 23 by Expresso newspaper and conducted by pollster Eurosondagem.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the first- and second-place candidates compete in a two-way runoff vote on Feb. 14.

In Portugal, the president has no executive power, which is held by the government, but is an influential voice. If the head of state fears the country is going down the wrong path, he or she can fire the government and call a new election.

The election comes amid tension over whether to stick with austerity measures as Portugal battles to emerge from a financial crisis that tormented the 19 countries using the euro currency and forced Portugal to ask for a 78 billion-euro ($85 billion) bailout in 2011.

The center-left Socialist government which took power in November, supported by the Communist Party and Left Bloc, is reversing some of the money-saving cuts introduced by the previous center-right government despite warnings from European leaders that Portugal must reduce its huge debt burden.

With government debt still the third-highest in the 28-nation European Union at 130 percent of annual gross domestic product, some fear a return to reckless spending that could re-ignite market jitters over the eurozone.

Portugal's 9.7 million registered voters will choose a successor to Anibal Cavaco Silva, who has served the maximum of two consecutive five-year terms.

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Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.