An opinion poll published on Wednesday showed Portugal’s two main parties level ahead of a general election on June 5, raising the prospect of protracted negotiations on forming a new government to implement the country’s €78bn ($110bn) bail-out agreement.

The poll by the Catholic University of Lisbon gave both the Socialists of José Sócrates, caretaker prime minister, and the Social Democrats (PSD), the main opposition party, 36 per cent of the vote.

Other recent polls have given a lead of between two and six percentage points to the centre-right PSD. No single party has so far emerged as a clear potential winner in the snap election, called two years ahead of schedule to resolve a political crisis.

The PSD hopes to form a majority government coalition with the small conservative Popular party, forecast in Wednesday’s poll to win 10 per cent of the vote.

But it was not clear under Portugal’s system of proportional representation whether their combined projected vote of 46 per cent would be enough to secure a stable majority in parliament.

The strong showing by Mr Sócrates has surprised many political commentators who expected the Socialists to be heavily penalised by voters for the country’s deep recession and the request for a financial rescue by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

“Those who thought the Socialists didn’t have the slightest chance of winning were wrong,” Mr Sócrates told supporters at a campaign meeting. The party was “very close” to victory, he said.

Pedro Passos Coelho, the PSD leader, appealed to voters not to abstain. Polls show about 28 per cent of voters are undecided.

PSD officials are hopeful that polls made following what most analysts considered a strong performance by Mr Passos Coelho in a recent television debate with Mr Sócrates will help the party move into the lead.

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