LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese voted Sunday in an election that that the ruling Socialists were expected to win but without an absolute majority, producing greater political uncertainty at a time of serious economic challenges.
Prime Minister Jose Socrates, an energetic 52-year-old, is expected to win about 38 percent of the vote, according to the last opinion polls, meaning his center-left Socialists would be unable to replicate their current majority rule.
His challenger is Manuela Ferreira Leite, 68, leader of the center-right Social Democrats, who has campaigned for vigorous public sector spending cuts to reduce growing debt caused by the worst economic recession in decades.
With unemployment at 9.1 percent and rising -- the highest since the 1980s -- many Portuguese appear to be turning to left-wing parties, which could post the biggest gains since the 2005 election.
Central Lisbon was quiet on a sunny Sunday as the main candidates cast their votes, urging voters to turn out. Opinion polls showed many voters had not decided whom to vote for or whether to vote at all.
"It's a very important choice for the Portuguese for the years to come," Socrates told reporters after casting his ballot in central Lisbon. "The country is facing serious challenges and all have to partake in that choice."
Some voters were worried about the outcome, especially with serious economic problems and the possibility no party winning a majority in the 230-seat parliament.
CAN THEY FIX IT?
"I don't think they'll fix the country's problems, I don't think they can put it right," said Antonio Jose Castela, 56, a pensioner preparing to vote in Lisbon. "They should form a coalition but I think it will be more difficult that way."
The Socialists received 45 percent of the vote in 2005, giving them 121 parliament seats under the country's proportional representation system. The majority allowed them to clean up public finances and carry out reforms of pensions and the civil service in their first term.
Whoever wins will have not only to repair the economy after its deepest recession for decades but also to rectify long-term economic weaknesses which caused it to underperform its European partners in the past decade.
Between 2001 and 2005 period average growth was just 0.9 percent, far below the euro zone's average of 1.5 percent. As a result, it is western Europe's poorest country, with a per capita gross domestic product of 15,600 euros ($22,910), nearly half of the euro area average of 28,300 euros.
Political analysts said a minority government would not be a disaster but could curb Socrates' ability to carry out ambitious reforms or undertake big infrastructure projects. Socialist former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres ruled with a minority.
"If the Socialists get 38 percent of the vote as the polls indicate, it is not the worst of situations for their survival, it has been done in the past," analyst Antonio Costa Pinto said.
Analysts say Socialists and Social Democrats may have to cooperate on some issues, particularly on public finance and the 2010 budget.
On other matters, such as social reform, the Socialists may turn to left-wing parties. Socrates, like the left, sees a bigger government role in the economy, with projects to create jobs.
The left staunchly opposes Socrates's market-friendly economic policies, including privatization.
Socrates has advocated a series of big, vote-winning infrastructure projects, such as a high-speed train link to Spain and a new Lisbon airport to boost jobs and promote robust economic growth.
This year the economy is expected to contract by up to 4 percent.
Voting will end at 8 p.m. (3 p.m. EDT) and the first exit polls are expected about that time.