Portuguese voters have been asked to step down despite the country’s pandemic on Sunday for a presidential election that is widely expected to see incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa win another term.
Measurements point to a victory in the first round for Rebelo de Sousa, a former political commentator who became accommodating head of state known for outraged moments as a queue at the supermarket in shorts, threw himself into the sea to help girls whose canoe had chosen or shared a meal homeless .
But observers have an eye on how a right-wing challenger will perform – and whether a drop in turnout could cause outrage.
At stake is a post with the power to dissolve parliament and call for new elections – a crucial constitutional role with a minority government in power.
Portugal has been under a second national lockdown in the last ten days aimed at slowing a sharp increase in coronavirus cases.
The country recorded its worst number of coronavirus deaths each day and the number of new infections on Saturday, leading to more than 10,000 deaths.
More than 80,000 infections were reported in the past week to Friday, the highest percentage worldwide in relation to its 10.8 million people, according to an AFP figure based on government figures.
Almost every new day sets a new record in the number of cases, and the government has now closed schools for two weeks on top of shops and restaurants.
Hold it for a round
In his last campaign speech, Rebelo de Sousa – one of the rare politicians who is often just called by his first name – urged voters to support him to avoid a second round.
It would “spare the Portuguese people from extending the election over three important weeks” – time that could be better spent on curbing the pandemic, said the former minister and co-founder of the Social Democratic Center (PSD).
“A closed share of 70 percent would be enough to make a second round almost inevitable,” warned the 72-year-old.
Lower turnout could also disrupt Rebelo de Sousa’s expected easy victory, with polls giving him 58 percent of the first round – well ahead of socialist challenger Ana Gomes and right-wing populist Andre Ventura, at 15 and 10 percent.
A re-election in the first round would fit in with Portugal’s experience since the adoption of a democratic government in 1974, in which all four of the president’s predecessors were given a second five-year term in this way.
Yet, over a long political career, I have “seen more failures than victories, so I keep things in perspective,” Marcelo said recently when asked if he had not been campaigning enough.
“When I lost, it was not the end of the world. And when I won, I did not think I was the best.”
Rebelo de Sousa’s popularity among voters has not been affected by his indulgence with Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s Socialist minority government.
He is so popular that the Socialist Party did not even bother to field a candidate and denied its support for 66-year-old Gomes, a former diplomat and European legislator who became an anti-corruption activist.
Meanwhile, Ventura, the 38-year-old founder of the right-wing populist party Chega – “Enough” – says he is on the verge of “crushing the left”, which is fielding three of the seven candidates.
Portugal has so far largely been spared the anti-establishment forces from the right that have reshaped the political landscape in many major EU countries in recent years.
Ventura secured its party’s first and only parliamentary seat in the 2019 legislative election and won support from 70,000 voters or 1.3 percent.