LISBON (Reuters) - Thousands of Portuguese protested on Saturday against austerity, stepping up their opposition to the country's 78-billion-euro bailout ahead of new spending cuts and tax hikes to be announced in the government's 2013 draft budget.
The peaceful protest organized by the CGTP union came after the center-right government ignited widespread anger this month with a hike in social security taxes that threatened to end Portugal's so far high social acceptance for austerity.
Facing criticism from unions, opposition politicians and businesses alike, the government reversed the tax hike. But it is now rushing to find alternative measures to adopt in its 2013 budget to ensure the country meets fiscal goals under its bailout from the European Union, European Central Bank and IMF, the so-called troika.
Protesters marched through downtown Lisbon, shouting "Let the fight continue" and carried banners reading "Go to hell Troika, we want our lives back."
"A year ago the prime minister told us the solution to the country's problems was the agreement with the troika," shouted CGTP head Armenio Carlos in a speech.
"But we have already seen this film in Greece, this is a road without an exit, pushing us toward the precipice," Carlos told the marchers that crowded into Lisbon's main Praca de Comercio square on the banks of the Tagus River.
The protest in Portugal came after a week of similar anti-austerity marches in Greece, Spain and Italy as southern Europeans face increasingly grim economic conditions under hardship sparked by the euro debt crisis.
Carlos said the protest was one of the largest organized by the CGTP, Portugal's biggest union, in recent years but he gave no figure of the number of people present. Praca de Comercio square has a capacity of about 100,000 people but it was not completely full on Saturday.
The protests were smaller than nationwide marches on September 15, immediately after the tax hike was announced, which prompted an estimated 500,000 people to take to the streets.
Portugal's unemployment rate has hit record levels above 15 percent as the country descended this year into its worst recession since the 1970s under the weight of spending cuts and tax hikes.
Anger by the Portuguese at austerity is likely to rise further as the government now expects the recession to extend into next year with few signs of economic growth emerging from the bailout plan.
The government has to present its 2013 budget by the middle of October.
(Reporting by Axel Bugge; editing by James Jukwey)