Early voting begins in Portugal on Sunday for a snap general election, with polls showing the Socialist incumbents still leading, although their lead over their closest centre-right rivals is narrowing.
More than 300,000 voters registered to vote a week early, with polling stations due to open at 8 a.m. (0800 GMT).
The early voting option was planned this year to reduce crowds on Election Day next Sunday due to the pandemic.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who has led two consecutive minority Socialist governments since 2015, is among those expected to vote early.
The snap polls were triggered after he failed to win support for his 2022 budget from the two small far-left parties that had backed his government.
It was the first time a budget had been rejected since the EU’s return to democracy in 1974.
The Socialists have around 38% support, compared to just over 30% for the main centre-right opposition party PSD, which would leave Costa once again without a working-class majority in parliament, according to a poll compiled by Radio Renaissance.
But surveys in recent days have shown the gap is narrowing, with at least one putting the two sides in a statistical tie when the margin of error is taken into account.
The election could see the far-right Chega party, which entered parliament for the first time with just one seat in the last election in 2019, make gains.
Polls give him support of almost 7%, which would make him the third strongest force in parliament.
– ‘Born politician’ –
Costa blasted his former allies – the Left Bloc and the Communist Party – as “irresponsible” for rejecting his budget and called on voters to give him an outright majority in the 230-seat parliament.
In the last elections in October 2019, the Socialist won 108 seats, eight less than an absolute majority.
“For the first time, I believe” it’s possible, Costa said in a recent interview with the weekly Expresso.
If his party wins the most votes but again lacks a majority, Costa said he plans to govern alone by negotiating support from other parties for laws on a case-by-case basis.
But University of Lisbon political scientist Jose Santana Pereira said it would be “difficult” for Costa to form a “stable government” without the far left.
“It is foreseeable that the current balance of forces will be maintained,” he told AFP.
Helping Costa is the fact that the PSD is divided.
Its leader, the former mayor of Porto Rui Rio, has faced three leadership challenges over the past four years.
“Costa is a born politician, and in the eyes of voters he is better prepared than Rui Rio,” said University of Lisbon political scientist Marina Costa Lobo.
– Covid electoral measures –
During Costa’s first term, Portugal enjoyed four years of economic growth, which allowed the government to reverse austerity measures imposed during the 2011 European debt crisis while posting the first budget surplus. country since its return to democracy in 1974.
The past two years have been marked by the Covid-19 health crisis.
Portugal, a country of about 10 million people, hopes to soon turn the page on the pandemic thanks to the success of its vaccination program which has earned it one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.
Like other European countries, Portugal is grappling with an increase in infections fueled by the highly contagious variant of Omicron.
Infected and isolated Portuguese voters will be allowed to leave their homes to vote on January 30, with a one-hour slot from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., when polling stations are traditionally less busy recommended.
Authorities have estimated that up to 600,000 people are currently in quarantine.