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Portugal reelects TV pundit as president, after people brave the pandemic to vote

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was reelected yesterday, amid a turnout higher than expected.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa gives his victory speech.
Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa gives his victory speech.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

PORTUGUESE PRESIDENT MARCELO Rebelo de Sousa has been re-elected, according to media projections and partial results, after a poll held at the height of the country’s coronavirus crisis.

The centre-right incumbent had been widely expected to win another term, and took 61.6% of the vote with almost all the results declared.

Socialist challenger Ana Gomes came in second with 12.24% of the vote, ahead of far-right candidate Andre Ventura in third.

In his victory speech, Rebelo de Sousa pledged to make the fight against coronavirus his “first priority”.

Portugal recorded its worst daily coronavirus death toll yesterday, with more than 85,000 infections and almost 1,500 deaths reported in the past week.

That is the highest rate worldwide in proportion to its population of more than 10 million, according to an AFP tally based on government figures.

Turnout reached 35.4% by 4pm, only slightly lower than at the same time five years ago, soothing fears that abstentions might top 70%.

portugal-lisbon-presidential-election People wearing masks wait to vote at a polling station in Lisbon. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

In the capital Lisbon, voters queued outside polling stations and were let in one by one under coronavirus social distancing rules.

“To those who can and who want to vote, overcome your fears,” Rebelo de Sousa said after casting his ballot in Celorico de Basto, his stronghold in the northern region of Minho.

About Rebelo de Sousa

Opinion polls had pointed to a first-round victory for Rebelo de Sousa, a former political commentator known for candid moments like sharing a meal with homeless people and plunging into the sea to help girls whose canoe had capsized.

Starting in the early 2000s, he made his debut as a political analyst on TV, delivering cutting commentary on politics, books and sport to a viewership that quickly grew.

Born in Lisbon in 1948, the former law professor comes from a family of political elites and grew up during Portugal’s repressive Salazar regime. His father, a doctor, was minister and colonial governor under authoritarian ruler Marcelo Caetano.

Rebelo de Sousa entered politics after that regime fell in 1974, and participated in the founding of the Social Democratic Party, which he ran from 1996 to 1999.

National lockdown

One voter, architect Jose Barra, aged 54, told AFP: “Nothing would have stopped me from voting, but I think elderly people, for example, will be discouraged both by the virus and by the queues.”

As mail-in ballots are not well-established in Portugal, early voting was available last Sunday, drawing nearly 200,000 voters.

portugal-lisbon-presidential-election Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Portugal has been under a second national lockdown for the past 10 days aimed at stemming a surge in coronavirus cases.

Almost every new day brings a fresh record in case numbers, and the government has now shut schools for two weeks on top of shops and restaurants.

Keep it to one round

The president has the power to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections – a pivotal constitutional role with a minority government in power.

In his final campaign speech, Rebelo de Sousa urged voters to back him so as to avoid a second round.

That would “spare the Portuguese people from the election being stretched out over three crucial weeks” – time that could be better spent slowing the pandemic, the former minister and co-founder of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) said.

“An abstention rate of 70% would be enough to make a second round almost unavoidable,” the 72-year-old had warned.

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Pre-election polls had given Rebelo de Sousa 58% of the first-round vote – far ahead of Gomes and Ventura, on 15% and 10%.

headquarters-camapanha-andre-ventura Campaign headquarters of André Ventura. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

A first-round re-election would fit in with Portugal’s experience since adopting democratic government in 1974, with all four of the president’s predecessors securing a second five-year term this way.

Far-right challenge

Rebelo de Sousa’s popularity with voters has not suffered from his indulgence of Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s socialist minority government.

He is so well-liked that the socialist party didn’t even bother putting up a candidate, denying its backing to 66-year-old Gomes, a former diplomat and European lawmaker turned anti-corruption activist.

Meanwhile, Ventura, the 38-year-old founder of right-wing populist party Chega – “Enough” – had said he was in the running to “crush the Left”, which fielded three out of the seven candidates.

Portugal has so far to a large degree not seen the anti-establishment surges from the right that have reshaped the political landscape in many larger EU nations in recent years.

Ventura – an ally of Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Matteo Salvini – secured his party’s first and only parliamentary seat in the 2019 legislative elections, winning the backing of 70,000 voters or 1.3%.

“For the first time, an openly anti-system party has disrupted the traditional right, with nearly half a million votes,” he said Sunday as the ballots were being counted.

© – AFP 2021

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