LISBON - Portuguese voted in local elections on Sunday and were expected to punish the ruling centre-right Social Democrat candidates after years of austerity measures aimed at tackling the worst economic crisis since the 1970s.
A record number of mayoral candidates were standing as independents in the first local election since Portugal received a 78-billion-euro IMF/EU bailout in 2011.
Voters have witnessed two and a half years of recession and unemployment is at a record level of about 17 per cent.
The Social Democrat-led government has overseen spending cuts and the biggest tax hikes in living memory. It nearly collapsed in July over an internal dispute about austerity and big losses at the local level could sap the government's appetite for further action.
The election is taking place during a review of the economy by European Union and International Monetary Fund officials, who are demanding more budget cuts.
"There may be punishment of the government and of the parties in power but the base scenario, in my view, is that there will be some sort of a tie," with the opposition Socialists, said Adelino Maltez, a political scientist at Lisbon's Technical University.
The Socialists should gain from the government's unpopularity but analysts cautioned it was not certain because of the number of independent candidates.
The Socialists were in government when the country had to request the aid package in 2011.
"If anyone is to blame it is the Socialists, they got us into this situation in the first place," said Aderito Cardoso, 63, a pensioner.
Opinion polls give the Social Democrats about 27 per cent support and their junior coalition partner, the rightist CDS-PP, 6.5 per cent. The Socialists have about 38 per cent support.
"There may be a record of around one million votes for independent candidates which could send a serious warning to our political system and totally change the usual placidity of the political alternatives available," said Maltez.
A record 80 independent candidates are standing for mayor in the 308 municipalities, up from 54 at the 2009 local elections. In several municipalities, including Portugal's second city Porto, independents are in first or second place in the polls.
Polls close at 1900 GMT. Officials say results may be delayed because the election is the first since some local councils were merged in an effort to cut costs. Final results may not be available until early Monday.