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Population decline is key issue in Portugal election

By EARLE GALE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-01-21 10:09

Portugal's Social Democratic Party (PSD) leader Rui Rio gestures during a campaign rally for the snap elections in Lisbon, on Jan 17, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

Portugal's stagnating economy and aging and shrinking population have become important issues in campaigning ahead of its general election on Jan 30.

With young Portuguese people leaving their homeland in droves in search of better-paid work, their older relatives and friends are worried about the future of the country, Rui Rio, from the center-right Social Democrats, or PSD, said during a recent TV debate.

Rio, who is one of the main challengers of Antonio Costa, the incumbent prime minister, said young people are having to choose between "miserable wages" and emigration.

Costa's center-left Socialists party, or PS, which has a comfortable lead in opinion polls but which is unlikely to secure a parliamentary majority, said it is focusing on ensuring young Portuguese people are well educated and skilled.

The exodus, which is being compounded by a low birth rate, has seen the country's population shrink by 2 percent, or 214,000 people, during the past decade, according to preliminary findings from the nation's 2021 census.

However, around 80,000 people have been leaving the country each year. Most have been replaced by unskilled workers from other countries willing to toil for little pay in the tourism and agriculture sectors.

"At the same time as our qualified graduates are emigrating because wages here are so low, we are importing low-skilled immigrants," David Justino, a former education minister and coordinator of the PSD's election program, told the Financial Times newspaper. "This has the perverse effect of perpetuating a low-wage economy."

Quoting a recent study by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation, the FT said more than 70 percent of workers younger than 34 earn less than 950 pounds ($1,295) a month.

The paper said most young workers have "precarious work contracts", and around a third are considering emigrating.

The country's nursing body said around 20,000 nurses who trained there are now working overseas, despite the pandemic highlighting the worker-shortages within the country's health service.

And, with 23.4 percent of the population older than 65, a proportion eclipsed only by Japan, the shrinking population is having to support an increasingly large population of pensioners.

The Reuters news agency said on Thursday the nation has decided voters with COVID-19 and those who are isolating because of the novel coronavirus will be allowed to participate.

Interior Minister Francisca Van Dunem said people in quarantine will be able to physically vote between 6 pm and 7 pm, with others urged to do so earlier in the day.

"We need a social pact that allows everyone to vote in safety," she said.

The country, which has vaccinated almost 90 percent of its 10 million population, recorded a record 43,729 infections on Wednesday.

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