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Portugal Votes For New President Amid Austerity Moves

Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva is expected to be reelected.
Voters in Portugal are going to the polls in a presidential election held amid a looming eurozone debt crisis and public anger over austerity measures aimed at cutting the country's budget deficit.

Opinion polls showed incumbent Anibal Cavaco Silva, of the center-right Social Democrats, getting 60 percent of the vote, well ahead of his closest rival, Socialist Manuel Alegre, who trailed with 20 percent.

Years of slow economic growth have made Portugal one of the eurozone's weakest members. Many economists predict the country will soon follow Ireland and Greece in asking for an international rescue package.

Although the president plays a largely ceremonial role, Cavaco Silva has backed the austerity plan of Prime Minister Jose Socrates's Socialist government. But tax hikes and public-sector pay cuts aimed at avoiding a bailout have been deeply unpopular.

Portugal saw dozens of strikes last year, including a 24-hour general strike that shut down many public services. Public-transport and mail-service workers are expected to stage more strikes next month.

Voting For Stability?

As today's vote approached, polls showed voters losing interest in the election. But after casting her ballot today, one woman said it was important for the government's success.

"The conduct of the country is in the president's hands, so we need a strong voice," she said. "I believe that the person I voted for has that strength."

Incumbent Cavaco Silva is a former economics professor who was prime minister from 1985 to 1995. Many voters are seen to support him as the best hope for stability.

Cavaco Silva said earlier this week there would be "serious damage" if no candidate gained the 50 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a second runoff vote. He said the uncertainty would push up interest rates. His rival Alegre accused him of blackmailing voters.

After casting her ballot today, another voter said she was unhappy with politics in Portugal.

"I hope we can put this situation behind us," she said. "What I see is that the politicians are taking money from the poor and the rich are getting richer."

The president does have one important power: to dissolve parliament and call snap elections without having to explain the decision.

Some believe Cavaco Silva would use his authority to dismiss the Socialist government, in which the minority Socialists depend on support from the Social Democrats.

Cavaco Silva has said the power is important, but he later said he'd be reluctant to use it.

compiled from agency reports