Portuguese voters went to the polls yesterday to choose their president, in an election being closely watched in Brussels as the country recovers from a 78 billion euro (US$84.23 billion) bailout.
Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president has make-or-break power over the nation’s fragile ruling alliance and the power to dissolve parliament in the event of a crisis.
Since October last year’s inconclusive elections, Portugal’s minority Socialist Party government has been relying on a delicate coalition with the extreme-left to run the country of 10.4 million people.
The overwhelming favorite for the next head of state is TV pundit Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
Known as “professor Marcelo” to his fans, he comes into the race with a popularity that has been built thanks to decades in the public eye.
The 67-year-old law professor has been involved in Portuguese politics and media since his youth, co-founding a weekly newspaper in his 20s and helping to establish Portugal’s center-right Social Democratic Party.
Starting in the early 2000s he made his debut as a political analyst on TV, delivering clever commentary to a viewership that quickly grew.
“People love Marcelo because he is entertaining,” Rebelo de Sousa biographer Vitor Matos said.
His popularity is widely expected to help him break the 50 percent mark for an outright win in yesterday’s vote. If none of the 10 candidates surpasses this threshold, a runoff is to be held on Feb. 14.
The center-right bloc of conservative former Portuguese prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho won the most seats in last year’s ballot, but lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed since 2011.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa’s administration has promised to implement a moderate program that upholds EU budget commitments.
However, it is forced to count on the support in parliament of a bloc of communists and green-party candidates that has not renounced its critical stance towards European budgetary rules and Portugal’s membership of NATO.
De Sousa is a long-time conservative who has the backing of right-wing parties but who claims total independence.
He would succeed Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a conservative who has served two consecutive five-year terms and who had been reluctant to hand power to a left-wing coalition he described as “incoherent.”
De Sousa — who is projected in the latest opinion polls to garner between 52 and 55 percent of the vote — said he would do “everything I can” to ensure the current government’s stability.
About 9.7 million Portuguese are registered to vote, but the turnout rate in presidential elections is traditionally poor. In 2011, just half of all registered voters bothered to cast their ballot.
Whatever the result, the support of one international celebrity is not in doubt.
Sacked Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has called Rebelo de Sousa a “charismatic winner” in a video of support on YouTube.
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