The Portuguese president seemed ready to win a second term on Sunday in an election held in the midst of a devastating COVID-19 rise that has made the European country the worst country in the world for falls and deaths.
A preliminary poll suggested that center-right Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa captured 57-62% of the vote, giving him a final five-year term.
Socialist candidate Ana Gomes came in second with between 13-16%, suggested the survey by the Portuguese Catholic University’s polling center for public service broadcasters RTP.
In what would be a fantastic result, the newly arrived right-wing populist André Ventura came in third place with 16%, the survey indicated. Such a display for an extremist in ordinary Portuguese politics would have been unthinkable until recently.
Four other candidates went to the presidency.
The head of state of Portugal has no legislative powers held by Parliament and the government, but is an influential voice in the country’s government.
The initial survey estimated turnout at 45-50% – lower than in recent elections and apparently confirms concerns that some people would stay away for fear of becoming infected with COVID-19. Political leaders say that when the pandemic began to worsen, there was no longer enough time to change the Portuguese constitution to allow for a launch.
Portugal has the world’s highest rate of new daily infections and deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a speech by Johns Hopkins University, and its public health system is currently under enormous strain.
Rebelo de Sousa, 72, has long been considered the clear front runner in the competition. He is a beloved law professor and former TV personality who as president has always had an approval of 60% or more.
To win, a candidate must capture more than 50% of the votes.
Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the center-right Social Democratic Party, has worked closely with the center-left minority socialist government and supported its pandemic efforts.
He has also loved Portuguese with his light-hearted style. Photos taken by passers-by of him in public places, such as a last year of him standing in line at a supermarket with sneakers and shorts, routinely go viral.
With the country in a locked position, the election campaign did not include any of the usual flag-waving meetings, but restrictions on movement were lifted for election day.
Authorities increased the number of polling stations and allowed early voting to reduce congestion on election day. In other precautions, voters were asked to bring their own pens and disinfectants to the polls. Everyone who voted wore a mask and kept a safe distance from each other.
In a tweet, Prime Minister António Costa urged people to attend the vote, saying that “unprecedented planning” had taken place to ensure that the vote could take place safely.
Portugal has 10.8 million registered voters, of which about 1.5 million live abroad.
Every Portuguese president since 1976, when universal suffrage was introduced after the resignation of a dictatorship, has been returned for a second term. No woman or member of an ethnic minority has ever held the post.