A 24-hour general strike protesting the government’s austerity policies largely paralysed Portugal on Wednesday, with planes grounded, trains cancelled and rubbish going uncollected.

Unions hailed the action as a massive success.

The national strike is Portugal’s first since 2007, and the first called jointly by the two big trade union confederations, CGTP and UGT, in 22 years.

Incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled in Lisbon, Porto, Faro and the Azores islands, the airport authority ANA said. In neighbouring Spain, the airport authority AENA said 41 of the 53 flights between Spain and Portugal were cancelled. Most counters were closed at Lisbon airport.

More than 70 per cent of scheduled train connections were cancelled in the morning, the rail operating company CP said. Most Lisbon buses did not circulate, and ferries did not operate on the River Tagus in the morning.

The Lisbon underground remained closed, and 90 per cent of Porto underground engine drivers had reportedly joined the strike.

Ports remained closed, rubbish collection and postal services came to an almost complete halt in many places, while many hospitals and health centres were only offering minimum services, according to union sources.

Several large factories in the car and shipbuilding sectors reportedly came to a standstill.

Meanwhile, the police denied union accusations that they had violently dispersed post office pickets in the capital.

Prime Minister Jose Socrates’ economic policies “demand too many sacrifices from workers, while leaving out many (wealthy citizens) who could pay much more,” UGT leader Joao Proenca said.

Far-left leader Francisco Louca hailed the strike as an “enormous success” which would force the government to reconsider its policies.

The government, however, sees its spending cuts and tax hikes as indispensable for Portugal to restore the confidence of financial markets and to put its finances in order.

Socrates’ budget was due to be given the definitive green light by parliament this week. The budget slashes public sector wages by five per cent, freezes pensions, and raises value added tax from 21 to 23 per cent.

The government wants to cut the budget deficit from an expected 7.3 per cent this year to 4.6 per cent in 2011. The deficit would then be trimmed below the EU limit of 3 per cent by 2013.

Lisbon is trying to reassure markets concerned that Portugal might need an international bailout similar to those requested by Greece and Ireland.

Portugal’s unemployment rate climbed to a record 10.9 per cent in the third quarter.

Socrates has already faced a string of strikes and demonstrations against his liberalizing economic reforms.

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