Portugal held its presidential election on Sunday with the heavily favored moderate incumbent to win a second five-year term as cases of COVID-19 reached record levels.
Voters lined up for the opening of the polls in the Lisbon parish of Santo Antonio, guided by red stickers on the floor marking the two-meter (six-foot) gap.
“I’m among the first to avoid groups and lines,” said Cristina Queda, 58, meanwhile. “The date of the elections has not changed, I decided to come early to avoid this situation.”
The head of state in Portugal does not have legislative powers, which belong to the parliament and the government, but is an influential voice in the management of the country.
Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 72, is considered the favorite among seven candidates. He is a gracious and approachable law professor and former television personality who, as president, has always had an approval rating of 60% or higher.
To win, a candidate must capture more than 50% of the vote. But a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in recent days could keep the turnout low and possibly lead to a flow between the top two candidates, which would take place on February 14.
Portugal increased the number of polling stations and allowed early voting to reduce overcrowding on election day.
The highest infection rates in the world
Portugal has the world’s highest rates of new infections and daily deaths, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University, and the public health system is under enormous pressure.
Authorities reported a record daily toll of 274 deaths and more than 15,300 new cases on Saturday, with ambulances lining up for several hours at full capacity hospitals.
“I don’t agree that the date has not been changed,” said Jose Antonio Queda, 72, who also came early with his wife. “If we are locked in, we should avoid the virus as much as possible.”
With the country on lockdown, the election campaign did not feature any of the usual flag-waving rallies or other large public events, although movement restrictions were lifted on election day. Voters were asked to bring their own pen and disinfectant to the polling stations.
Among the outgoing president’s six challengers, right-wing populist André Ventura has drawn curiosity as the first ultra-conservative to break into mainstream Portuguese politics.
Keep it to a turn
In his final campaign speech, Rebelo de Sousa – one of the few politicians often referred to simply by his first name – urged voters to support him in order to avoid a run-off.
This would “spare the Portuguese people from having the elections spread over three crucial weeks” – time that could be better spent slowing the pandemic, said former minister and co-founder of the center-right Social Democratic Party (PSD) .
“A 70% abstention rate would be enough to make a second round almost inevitable,” warned the 72-year-old.
The low turnout could also disrupt Rebelo de Sousa’s expected easy victory, with polls giving him 58% of the vote in the first round – far ahead of socialist challenger Ana Gomes and Ventura, with 15 and 10%, respectively.
A first-round re-election would fit in with Portugal’s experience since the adoption of democratic government in 1974, with the president’s four predecessors securing a second five-year term.
Far right challenge
Rebelo de Sousa’s popularity with voters has not suffered from his indulgence towards the minority socialist government of Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
It is so appreciated that the Socialist Party did not see the need to present a candidate, denying its support for Gomes, 66, a former diplomat and European lawmaker turned anti-corruption activist.
Meanwhile, Ventura, the 38-year-old founder of the right-wing populist party Chega (Enough), said he was in the running to “crush the left,” which is fielding three of the seven candidates.
Portugal has so far been largely spared the anti-establishment pushes from the right that have reshaped the political landscape in many major EU countries in recent years.
Ventura won his party’s first and only parliamentary seat in the 2019 legislative elections, winning the support of 70,000 voters, or 1.3%.
Polls open at 8 a.m. (8 a.m. GMT). Media projections of the results will begin after polls close at 8:00 p.m. GMT in the Azores Islands in Portugal.