M. Continuo

Portugal main opposition extends lead on ruling parties in poll

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal's main opposition Socialists extended their lead over the centre-right ruling coalition for the second straight month after choosing a popular new leader before next year's election, an opinion poll showed on Friday.

The survey by Eurosondagem pollsters for SIC TV and Expresso weekly newspaper showed the centre-left Socialists gaining 2.1 percentage points since the previous poll in October to 36.9 percent of voting intentions.

The Social Democrats of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho trailed well behind with 25.3 percent after losing almost 1 percentage point, while their coalition partner, the rightist CDS-PP, slipped to 7.7 percent support.

On Sept. 28, the Socialists chose the mayor of Lisbon, Antonio Costa, as their leader to galvanize its drive to regain power after having slipped behind the ruling coalition in opinion polls earlier this year.

Portugal is due to hold a general election in October 2015.

Passos Coelho's government has imposed unpopular austerity measures such as tax hikes and wage and pension cuts to fulfil terms of the country's bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund since 2011.

But Lisbon exited the bailout in May with the economy recovering, a move that briefly boosted the government's ratings. Despite a recent slowdown, the government forecasts the economy will grow by 1 percent in 2014, the first full year of expansion following a three-year-long recession.

The Socialists were voted out of office in a snap election in 2011 after they were forced to request a 78-billion-euro (61.93 billion pounds)international bailout due to Portugal's acute debt crisis, which had left it on the verge of bankruptcy.

Although the Socialists promote anti-austerity rhetoric, analysts say the party would have little choice but to continue the general course of budget discipline and lower deficits if it wins power again. They also do not rule out a centrist coalition between the Socialists and the Social Democrats.

Portugal has promised to cut its budget deficit to 2.7 percent next year - below the European Union's 3 percent threshold - after 4.8 percent projected for 2014.

(Reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Mark Heinrich)