Voters give Portugal's austerity policy first test

Portuguese voted Sunday in municipal elections in what amount to the first test of the austerity policies of the two-year-old centre-right coalition government.

Some 9.5 million eligible voters are asked to go to the polls, which close at 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), to elect representatives for 308 city halls.

"Whether they are from the right or the left, the Portuguese hope the government will be punished in one way or another" for fully applying the austerity policies prescribed by international creditors, political scientist Antonio Costa Pinto told AFP.

In exchange for a 78-billion-euro ($105-billion) rescue package in May 2011, Portugal's government has imposed tax hikes and wage and pension cuts in a bid to balance the budget, aggravating a downturn that has sent unemployment to a record 17.7 percent at the beginning of this year.

Despite spreading discontent the Portuguese government has largely pushed forward with measures to repair the public finances as it seeks further disbursements of bailout funding.

The vote comes as auditors from the "troika" of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are in Lisbon to review Portugal's progress and decide whether to release a 5.5-billion-euro loan instalment.

Opinion polls forecast a big victory for the incumbent socialist mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Costa.

Many independent candidates are running in the municipal elections -- the case in second city Porto, which is currently run by the conservative Social Democratic party of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

The latest polls give independent candidate Rui Moreira the lead over conservative Luis Filipe Menezes.

Passos Coelho himself has insisted that "the municipal election results will have no effect on national policy."

The opposition Socialists hope to capitalise on the discontent in Portuguese households. Socialist Party leader Antonio Jose Seguro has urged voters to "make the right choice on Sunday".