LISBON (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese poured into the streets of Lisbon and other cities on Saturday to demand an end to austerity dictated by an international bailout and the resignation of the center-right government.
The rallies, which follow the introduction of the biggest tax hikes in living memory, mark the greatest public show of discontent since demonstrations last September forced the government to adjust some of its austerity measures.
More than 200,000 protesters in Lisbon packed the vast imperial Praca do Comercio square, home to the Finance Ministry, and surrounding streets, chanting: "It's time for the government to go".
Organizers said as many as 500,000 people took part in the rallies around Lisbon, which would make the protest bigger than in September, but the numbers could not be independently confirmed. Police, as is customary, would not provide estimates.
Many carried banners with slogans such as "Austerity kills" and "Screw the troika, power to the people!", aimed at the so-called troika of lenders from the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
"Grandola", the signature tune of the 1974 "Carnation revolution" that overthrew the fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar after the army rebelled, reverberated through the crowds in Lisbon, which has a population of about 3 million, and elsewhere where protesters gathered. Many cried as they sang.
Protesters have used the song increasingly in the past month to interrupt government ministers speaking at public events.
"We are in a new dictatorship. Everything that the revolution achieved is being destroyed," said one elderly protester in Lisbon who did not give his name.
The rallies, which coincide with a quarterly review by the EU/IMF bailout inspectors, are the first large protests since the government acknowledged last month the economic downturn this year will be nearly double its earlier predictions.
The forecast 1.9 percent decline will further deepen the worst recession since the 1970s, already in its third year.
Tax hikes and spending cuts ordered by the terms of the 78 billion euro ($101.3 billion) bailout agreed in mid-2011 have slashed consumer demand and pushed unemployment to record levels of 17 percent, causing thousands of small businesses to go bust.
"This government has left the people on bread and water, selling off state assets for peanuts to pay back debts that were contracted by corrupt politicians to benefit bankers," said Fabio Carvalho, a movie-maker, protesting on Lisbon's main Liberdade thoroughfare.
"If not today, things have to change tomorrow and we need to remain in the streets for the government to fall."
The rallies were organized in Lisbon, Porto and several dozen other cities via the Internet by a group of activists known as Que Se Lixe a Troika, or Screw the Troika.
Veronica Pereira, an unemployed mother who says she has no means to send her daughter to college said: "Our people have the habit of letting things happen, but I think this is changing radically now. We need to protest to change things," she said.
Echoing her words, Bob Dylan's 1964 anthem "The Times They are a-Changin'" blared from a car with loudspeakers.
PATIENCE RUNNING OUT
Portugal had shown a tolerance for austerity compared with countries like Greece with its frequent protests and strikes, but opposition has begun to rise in recent weeks as the economic outlook has worsened. Protests have largely been peaceful, but one Lisbon rally in November ended in clashes with police.
On Friday, the main opposition Socialists hardened their stance on the bailout, demanding an end to the austerity which they said pushed the country into a recessive spiral - the position they outlined to visiting EU/IMF bailout inspectors.
Socialist leader Antonio Jose Seguro said he felt the lenders were more open to his proposals of a growth-oriented strategy but doubted they would act soon enough.
The government's strategy, that has been praised by Brussels, is to cut the budget deficit as quickly as possible in order to exit the bailout as scheduled in the middle of 2014 after regaining full access to debt markets.
The government says it is likely to request an extra year to meet budget goals under the bailout, but political opponents and some business leaders say much more time is needed.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Pereira; Editing by Stephen Powell)