This Sunday, January 24, Portugal elects a new president for the next five years. However, a low turnout is expected at the polls, given the high rates of infections and deaths from Covid-19 that this Saturday set new records. Although there are seven candidates, the current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is expected to be re-elected for a second and final term. Without a doubt, the main challenge for the new Government will be the pandemic, which has had Portugal as the nation with the most deaths and cases per capita in the last seven days.
The strict confinement in Portugal paralyzes the country, but not its presidential elections. Its citizens, largely confined, will have to elect their new president for a five-year term this Sunday.
The idea of postponing the elections was ruled out and around 9 million people eligible to vote will be able to leave their homes in isolation to cast their ballot this Sunday.
Seven candidates ran for president, but their current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 72 years old and with an approval rating above 60%, is expected to be reelected.
However, and according to the polls of previous days, a new far-right populist, André Ventura, could ensure his passage to the second round to face the president. That scenario would send a shock wave to mainstream Portuguese politics, where extremists have so far not been present.
Portugal, which is suffering through a lockdown and one of the world’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, has backed early voting and opened more polling stations to hold a presidential election during a pandemic. https://t.co/kKEm7OJYtm
– AP Europe (@AP_Europe) January 23, 2021
In the event that no presidential candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes this Sunday, a second round will be held between the two candidates with the highest number of votes, on February 14.
In Portugal, the president does not have legislative powers, as these fall to Parliament and the Government, but he is an influential voice in the country’s decisions. In exceptional circumstances, it can dissolve the Legislature and call early elections. The president aims to stay above political disputes, mediating conflicts and acting as a referee to defuse tensions.
The nation lived this Saturday the so-called day of political reflection, in which campaigns and the publication of opinion polls were prohibited.
Portugal goes to elections with one of the worst rates of infections and deaths per capita in the world
“Voting is safe” affirm the posters in the streets to urge to participate in the democratic day, as many fear they will be infected if they go to the polls. And the fear is no wonder, this small country, with only 10 million inhabitants, this Saturday surpassed the 10,000 dead barrier and registered records in new cases and deaths in the last 24 hours: 274 deaths and more than 15,300 infected.
Portugal’s presidential election is underway, as infection cases are surging across the country. Even so, the incumbent is hoping for a second term. https://t.co/Y3juXQI4Yb
– POLITICOEurope (@POLITICOEurope) January 22, 2021
In addition, in the last seven days Portugal has been the nation with the highest number of infections and deaths per capita worldwide, according to data from the University of Oxford. Proof that the nation is on the brink of health collapse are the long lines of ambulances in the capital waiting for a bed to leave the sick.
“It would not have been a problem to wait another month. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures,” said Miguel Goncalves, 55, of Lisbon. Almost two-thirds of voters think the elections should be postponed, according to a survey by the ISC / ISCTE research institute published last week.
But delaying the vote would have required changing the country’s constitution, something officials said was not possible in such a short time.
Among the measures adopted for the voting, the authorities ask citizens to bring their own pens to pay, it is also mandatory to wear masks, distance between people in the lines and hand disinfection.
The pandemic is expected to cause high abstention in the elections
Pollsters expect record abstentions, even as groups of volunteers dressed in protective gear collected ballots at the doorstep of some 13,000 quarantined voters, and about 250,000 people registered for early voting to avoid crowds.
It is a record number, but still low considering that there are more than 9 million people qualified to vote.
“Now we face a double-edged risk: high abstentions and the fact that those who attend will be out of their homes,” said opposition leader Rui Rio.
The vote is the only reason why people can leave the house for anything other than work or essential transfers, but there are also criticisms among the population because as an exceptional measure the Government allows mobility between municipalities for this Sunday, if the objective is to pay, something that is prohibited for weekends, under the current national closure rules.
With Reuters, AP and EFE