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Portugal's president wins new term amid COVID surge

January 25, 2021

Ex-journalist Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won his second term as the president of Portugal, albeit with record low turnout. The leader said his "most urgent" task was to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa casts his ballot during presidential elections in Portugal
The win gives Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa another five-year termImage: Luis Vieira/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Former TV commentator Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa scored a resounding victory in Portugal presidential election on Sunday.

Official results showed the incumbent president winning around 61% percent of the vote. The lead is enough for Rebelo de Sousa to secure another 5-year term and avoid a runoff election.

"The most urgent of tasks is to combat the pandemic. This is my priority, in total solidarity with parliament and government," Rebelo de Sousa said in his victory speech.

Socialist challenger Ana Gomes took second place, snagging close to 13% of the vote. The count puts her just ahead of the far-right, populist candidate Andre Ventura, who secured 12% of the ballots.

Portugal votes despite lockdown

The Sunday election also marked the lowest turnout in the history of Portugal — less than 40% of all voters found their way to the polls. The country is struggling with a coronavirus outbreak and hundreds of thousands are in quarantine. Political leaders previously said there was not enough time to change the constitution and allow for the vote to be postponed.

On Sunday, voters were asked to bring their own pens and disinfectant to polling stations.

Eyes on populist candidate

Rebelo de Sousa, a 72-year-old former television personality and law professor, was ahead of his rivals during the campaign. He enjoys a consistent approval rating of 60% or more and is known for his candid moments in public — from sharing a meal with homeless people to wearing shorts to go shopping at a supermarket.

However, analysts have been watching closely to see how Ventura would perform. Portugal has largely not seen the same surge in support for populist parties that many of its fellow EU nations have in recent years. However, if official results mirror the exit polls, the Sunday election would indicate a large jump in support for the far-right candidate.

In 2019, Ventura won his party's first and only parliamentary seat with 1.3% of the ballots.

Limited powers, but key role

While not the head of state, Portugal's presidents have the power to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections — a pivotal constitutional role with a minority government in power.

Presidents do not possess legislative powers, but are an influential voice in running the government.

Historically all four presidents since the end of Portugal's dictatorship in 1976 have been re-elected for a second term.

Pandemic overshadows election

The low turnout is sure to raise eyebrows in Portugal, where many were hesitant to take to polls due to the "dramatic infection numbers," DW correspondent Jan-Philipp Scholz reported from the capital, Lisbon.

On Sunday, Rebelo de Sousa urged called on potential voters to "overcome [their] fears" and cast their ballots.

Are border closures on the EU agenda?

The vote was largely overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, with the country currently under a strict national lockdown.

Portugal, a country of 10.8 million, has one of the worst infection rates in the world. The authorities recorded its worst daily coronavirus death toll on Sunday, bringing the total number of fatalities to almost 10,500.

Experts believe the recent surge in cases is primarily due to the spread of coronavirus variant B117, which was first identified in the United Kingdom. The B117 variant is more contagious that the original variant.

rs/dj (AP, dpa, AFP)