Extremists likely to make gains as main parties fail to find answers to Portugal's malaise

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The Independent Online

Three days before Portugal goes to the polls, a website is urging people to cast a blank vote, registering their disillusion by abstaining in person.

Three days before Portugal goes to the polls, a website is urging people to cast a blank vote, registering their disillusion by abstaining in person.

It is an apt indicator of a country that appears to have lost its way politically.

Cynicism and gloom about the future have plumbed levels unprecedented in modern Portugal. A succession of weak governments has failed to turn around a flagging economy to the point that the country is now in deep trouble. But no remedies appear to be on offer.

After an inconclusive television debate between party leaders, Jose Manuel Fernandes, the prominent commentator, said yesterday: "They were asked what sacrifices were needed, but they didn't reply. They promised to create jobs, encourage investment, improve education. But how? They didn't say."

Sunday's election comes two years early, following the collapse of the conservative Social Democratic government last November, four chaotic months after Jose Manuel Durao Barroso quit as prime minister to head the European Commission. Pedro Santana Lopes took over, but his government - in an uneasy coalition with the right-wing Popular Party - never recovered from Mr Barroso's departure in July. People failed to warm to a prime minister they never elected, and detractors called him a lightweight. Jose Socrates's Socialists are expected to win on Sunday, but not necessarily by a landslide. Memories are still raw about how Antonio Guterres led the Socialists to power in 1996 promising much, and delivered little. But Mr Socrates is untried and uncharismatic.

More worryingly, the door is open to extremists for the first time since the so-called Carnation Revolution, which ushered in an era dominated by the two main parties. With the Socialists and the Social Democrats (formerly the conservative Popular Democrats) now at their lowest ebb, only the far left and far right are expected to make gains.

It is a drastic decline from the optimism of 10 years ago. Money poured in from Brussels to build the motorways that now criss-cross the country. Expo 98 crowned a moment of euphoria and confidence when Lisbon was cool and every young European wanted to be seen in its African nightclubs.

Mr Guterres's sensitive Socialism seemed to offer the magic formula for modernising one of the most backward economies of Europe. Now Europe's good pupil is bottom of the class. And Mr Guterres's golden years are being revised with many suggesting that he reaped the benefits of the harsh, unpopular policies previously pursued by right-wing Anibal Cavaco Silva, who ruled for a decade with Thatcherite commitment to the free market.

Mr Cavaco Silva, who boasted "I rarely have doubts and I am never wrong", is regarded with sneaking nostalgia as someone who at least had a vision of what to do. He is tipped to succeed Jorge Sampaio as president in 2006.

Those glory days of Cool Lusitania, when young professionals bought new flats with huge mortgages, were largely confined to the capital. Outside Lisbon, in the rural interior, picturesque landscapes concealed an economy of textile sweatshops and shoe factories that exploited an ill-educated workforce, including children.

Those factories are now doomed. Savaged by competition from China, a record number of Portuguese textile factories closed last year, leaving hundreds of thousands out of work. Dole is not generous. Opportunities to reskill barely exist. Tourism is touted as the activity of the future, but no one is offering a 40-year-old factory hand a course in catering studies. Fishing is dead. Agriculture, with fields parched in the worst drought for years, is moribund.

One of the EU'spoorest members, Portugal has the widest wealth gap, the poorest record in education and social welfare, and trails newcomers Slovenia and Cyprus in GDP.

All this deepened the public's already jaundiced view of their politicians. "There's no light visible at the end of the tunnel," said Jose Manuel Fernandes. "Which is not surprising because everyone's looking back instead of forward. No politician offers any hope for the future."