António Costa promises voters stable economic growth in a possible financial storm

costa electionsCampaigning for Portugal’s general election kicked off Monday with Prime Minister António Costa enjoying big poll leads.

In the last few years Costa has accurately interpreted the public mood. Four years ago he capitalised on a widespread desire to end austerity, promising that “there is another way”. That strategy brought him to power at the head of a minority government backed by the far left.

His promise of budget surpluses rather than big pay rises could win him an absolute majority in the incoming October 6th general election. “To shelter from any storm that may arise, we have to stay on the path of fiscal consolidation,” he has said.

His centre-left Socialists (PS) are currently enjoying a lead of more than 15 percentage points over the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), the main opposition party, which steered Portugal through a punishing 2011-14 troika bailout.

António Costa is “a pragmatic, intelligent leader who knows how to strike deals to the left and the right when they suit his intentions”, said Isabel David, a political science professor at the University of Lisbon (ISCSP). Knowing that “the Portuguese are wary of monetary expansion and excessive state spending”, he is “playing the card of a responsible politician who does not want to jeopardise the economy”.

According to polls, the PS’s projected share of the vote, currently about 39 per cent, is close to the percentage needed for an outright majority of parliamentary seats. However, Costa is appealing for a “strong PS” rather than an outright majority, acknowledging that Portugal has “bad memories” of concentrating what many consider excessive power in a single party.

Yet few doubt the prime minister’s ambition is to win an absolute majority for the PS. “Everyone understands that that is his objective” claimed Luís Marques Mendes, a political commentator and former PSD leader on SIC television recently.

In making fiscal rigour the central focus of his campaign some believe that Costa has made the leftwing parties that have kept him in power so far his main opponents. An election that produced “a weak PS” and a strong Left Bloc (BE)(the anti-capitalist party that supports his minority administration) would make the country “ungovernable”, he warned in an interview with the Expresso newspaper. The risk of such a result, he said, would be to place Portugal in a similar situation to that of Mr. Sánchez in Spain. Sánchez has failed to form a government because he could not secure support from the smaller left-wing Podemos party.

Moreover, the prime minister’s centre-right opponents blame irresponsible public investment for breakdowns in public services, particularly at hospitals, which has been felt heavily in the Algarve region.

But Costa is expected to stick to his own disciplined responsible growth method crux. “Economic growth and controls over public spending have enabled Costa both to honour his pact with the left and balance the public accounts, leaving the centre-right opposition without a convincing argument in this election,” said António Pinto, a politics professor at University of Lisbon’s Institute of Social Sciences. “Between yielding to the left and ensuring sound finances, he will opt for the latter.”

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