Photos: Portuguese election likely to be won by Socialists

Portugal voted on Sunday in an election that is likely to hand victory to Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s Socialists but without an outright majority, leaving the fate of potential allies as the main question.

Costa’s prospects were seen as being helped by the economy, which is growing more than the EU average, helped by export growth and a booming tourism industry that last year saw more tourists visit Portugal than it has inhabitants.

Opinion polls indicated his Socialist party would come top with between 36.5% and 38.8% of the vote but would need one or more parties to back them to stay in government. Costa’s minority government has been backed by two far-left parties since 2015.

Voting closes at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) in mainland Portugal. Exit polls are expected an hour later and official results will trickle in through the evening. Depending on how close the outcome is, a clear picture could emerge quickly or take days or even weeks.

“The main question is whether we’ll have our hands tied,” Costa said during a campaign rally on Friday. “We need to have the strength to guarantee four years of stability and not be a short-term government.”

Costa’s government has been praised by Brussels and at home for combining fiscal discipline with measures to promote growth after recession and the austerity of Portugal’s 2010-14 debt crisis.

“I’m voting for Costa again. He’s done well for us. He represented the people, defended the people, and I can only hope he does more of the same if he wins,” 81-year old Fatima Abreu said at a central Lisbon polling station early on Sunday.

But after a series of scandals, from a nepotism row to the alleged involvement of a former minister in an army cover-up of the theft of weapons from a military base, other voters said it was time for a change.

“Politicians say that everything is fine but if it is fine it is only for them … I haven’t received a pay rise since 2009,” said 66-year old garbage collector Adriano Macedo, who voted for the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), the main opposition party.

NEGOTIATIONS

The PSD is polling at under 30% and is expected to lose seats, while the Socialists are seen winning more than in 2015.

Post-election negotiations are not expected to be as messy as in neighbouring Spain, which still has no government more than five months after elections and is heading for a repeat poll in November.

In 2015, it took less than two months for Costa, whose party had actually come second, behind the PSD, to strike an unexpected alliance with the far-left, Eurosceptic Left Bloc and the Communists, and to be sworn in as prime minister.

Four years on, the hard left is demanding more public spending and has accused Costa of veering to the right. Costa has already ruled out a formal coalition but may try to renew his governing pact with one of the parties or both.

Since the last election, the People-Animals-Nature party (PAN), riding a wave of popularity of pro-environment parties in much of Europe, could become a kingmaker in parliament. PAN has said it is ready to support Costa if he commits to its environmentalist proposals, but it remains to be seen whether the party will win enough new seats.

“I voted for PAN because it is the only party that really cares about the climate crisis we are in and the only one that shows real interest in wanting to solve it,” 27-year-old student Sara Coelho said.

Voter turnout stood at 38.6% at 1500 GMT, nearly six percentage points down from the same time in 2015.