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Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT). At the University of Lisbon, staff outnumbered mostly elderly voters, with signs on the walls asking people to wear a mask, observe social distancing and to use their own pen.
Some even wore gloves for extra protection.
“I have been vaccinated, and I haven’t had COVID yet… But I felt very safe,” said Maria Odete, 73. She said the election appeared too close to produce a stable government capable of bringing positive change.
The government has allowed those infected to leave isolation and cast ballots in person, recommending that they do so in the last hour before polling stations close at 7:00 pm (1900 GMT) and promising “absolute safety” during the vote.
Over a tenth of Portugal’s 10 million people are estimated to be isolating because of COVID-19. As in many European countries, infections have spiked, although widespread vaccination has kept deaths and hospitalisations lower than in earlier waves.
The election is wide open as the centre-left ruling Socialists have lost much of their lead in opinion polls to the main opposition party, the centre-right Social Democrats (PSD), and neither is likely to win a stable majority.
Low turnout could make projections unreliable, analysts say.
Abstention was already a record 51 percent in the 2019 general election before the pandemic. Around 23 percent of those eligible have voted so far, official data shows.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa, as well as over 300,000 other Portuguese, cast his ballot in early voting last weekend but accompanied his wife to a Lisbon polling station on Sunday.
Walking his two dogs, who barked while he spoke to reporters, Costa said he was “confident and serene” about the results.
His main opponent, PSD leader Rui Rio, who voted in the city of Porto also said he felt calm and urged people to head to the polls.
“Given the uncertainty of the results, we would expect more people to vote, but we also have the pandemic that may lead some to be afraid,” Rio said.
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The vote, called in November after parliament rejected the minority Socialist government’s budget bill, could produce only a short-lived government, unless one of the main parties manages to form a working alliance.
“We want more stability but I don’t think that’s what is going to happen. I think we’ll have one or two years of instability,” said Mario Henriques, 42, as he walked out of a polling station.
Instability could complicate Portugal’s access to a 16.6-billion-euro ($18.7 billion) package of EU pandemic recovery aid and its success in channelling funds into projects to boost economic growth in western Europe’s poorest country.
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