By Catarina Demony and Patricia Vicente Rua
LISBON (Reuters) -Portugal goes to the polls in March following the abrupt resignation of the prime minister amid a corruption probe, but voters and analysts fear prolonged political instability as the economic outlook worsens.
Antonio Costa stepped down on Tuesday over an investigation into alleged illegalities in his government’s handling of green energy projects, forcing President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa to call the snap election for March 10. Costa denies wrongdoing.
The first opinion poll after Costa’s resignation, released on Friday by Intercampus, showed his Socialist Party (PS) slumping to 17.9% support from 25.2% in October, while the centre-right opposition Social Democrats (PSD) slipped to 21.8%. Nearly 20% of voters were undecided, it showed.
Andre Azevedo Alves, political science professor at Lisbon’s Catolica University and St Mary’s University in London, said the corruption investigation was a “very strong blow” to any PS ambitions. Costa has been in power since 2015.
Analysts agree the PSD is likely to come out on top, but doubt its ability to build enough support to form a stable government.
Andre Ventura, the populist leader of the far-right Chega, the third-largest force in parliament, could become a kingmaker for the PSD if it fails to clinch a majority, but PSD chief Luis Montenegro has so far ruled out any such alliance.
The Intercampus survey showed support for Chega at 13%.
“Assuming the likelihood that the PSD will not have (enough) votes to form a government without Chega… we may go from one political crisis to another,” Alves said.
Antonio Barroso of Teneo political consultants said the PSD and its “not particularly popular leader” might be tempted to form a pre-electoral coalition with smaller parties on the right, such as Liberal Initiative or CDS-PP.
“However, whether the smaller centre-right parties would be amenable to such an alliance is unclear,” he said.
Waiting for a bus in central Lisbon, Ana Bernardino, 23, vented her concerns about the political outlook.
“It is a political crisis and in my opinion it’s a bit frustrating that elections are being held again…I’m a bit afraid.”
Since coming to power in the aftermath of a debt crisis and international bailout, Costa has presided over a period of economic growth and sound public finances, but his government has been criticised for not doing enough to contain the rising cost of living in Portugal and wider Europe.
“It seems like the country is adrift…if we look carefully, the problems are always the same. We are the ones who pay the bill,” said another Lisbon resident, Maria Ines Ferreira.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Patricia Rua; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Nick Macfie and Angus MacSwan)