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Corruption scandals cast a shadow over Portugal鈥檚 early general election and may favor populists

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) 鈥 The official two-week campaign period before Portugal鈥檚 early general election began on Sunday, with the country鈥檚 two moderate mainstream parties once again expected to collect the most votes but with the expected rise of a populist party potentially adding momentum to Europe鈥檚 drift to the right.

The center-left Socialist Party and center-right Social Democratic Party have alternated in power for decades. But they are unsure of how much support they might need from smaller rival parties for the parliamentary votes needed to form a government after the March 10 vote.

Corruption scandals have cast a shadow over the ballot. They have also fed public disenchantment with the country鈥檚 political class as Portugal prepares to celebrate 50 years of democracy, following the Carnation Revolution that toppled a rightist dictatorship on April 25, 1974.

The election is being held after a Socialist government collapsed last November following a corruption investigation. That case brought a police search of Prime Minister Ant贸nio Costa鈥檚 official residence and the arrest of his chief of staff. Costa hasn鈥檛 been accused of any crime.

Also in recent weeks, a Lisbon court decided that a former Socialist prime minister should stand trial for corruption. Prosecutors allege that Jos茅 S贸crates, prime minister between 2005-2011, pocketed around 34 million euros ($36.7 million) during his time in power from graft, fraud and money laundering.

The Social Democratic Party has also been tainted by corruption allegations.

During the recent weeks of unofficial campaigning, a graft investigation in Portugal鈥檚 Madeira Islands triggered the resignation of two prominent Social Democrat officials. The scandal erupted on the same day the Social Democratic Party unveiled an anti-corruption billboard in Lisbon that said, 鈥淚t can鈥檛 go on like this.鈥

A housing crisis, persistent levels of low pay and unreliable public health services are other areas where the records of the two main parties are at issue.

Hot-button topics that have driven political debate and encouraged populist parties elsewhere in Europe, such as climate change, migration and religious differences, have largely been absent in Portugal鈥檚 campaign.

A five-year-old populist and nationalist party called Chega! (in English, Enough!) has made the fight against corruption one of its political banners. 鈥淧ortugal needs cleaning out,鈥 one of its billboards declares.

The party鈥檚 leader, 41-year-old lawyer Andr茅 Ventura, has been riding in third place in opinion polls and could become a kingmaker if his political influence grows. His party got just 1.3% of votes in a 2019 election, but jumped to 7.3% in 2022. It could collect more than double that this time, polls suggest, if a protest vote materializes.

A key question is whether the Social Democrats will end up needing the votes of Chega! to make up a parliamentary majority after eight years in opposition.

The Socialist Party could, as in the past, forge parliamentary alliances with the Portuguese Communist Party or Left Bloc party to take power.

Socialist leader Pedro Nuno Santos, his party鈥檚 candidate for prime minister, is a lawmaker and a former minister for housing and infrastructure. Santos, 46, quit the previous government under a cloud over his handling of bailed-out flag carrier TAP Air Portugal and a dispute over the site of a new Lisbon airport.

Lu铆s Montenegro, the 51-year-old Social Democrat leader aiming to become prime minister, has been a lawmaker for more than 20 years. He heads the Democratic Alliance, a grouping with two smaller right-of-center parties formed for the election.