LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal’s centre-right president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, won a second term on Sunday in an election marked by record abstention as the country battles a crippling third wave of coronavirus contagion.
The 72-year-old former leader of the Social Democratic Party, known for his warm persona and habit of taking selfies with supporters, won 61% of votes, above his 52% win in 2016.
Still, 60% of voters abstained – the highest figure in Portuguese history – in part because 1.1 million voters from abroad were added to the electoral register for the first time, but also due to hundreds of thousands of people in quarantine.
The president holds a largely ceremonial role but can veto certain laws and decree states of emergency, a power Rebelo de Sousa deployed often during the pandemic, taking parliament’s lead.
“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.
Andre Ventura, a lawmaker for the far-right Chega party, narrowly lost out to left-wing candidate Ana Gomes in the fight for a distant second place, with 12% of the vote to Gomes’ 13%.
The result was nevertheless a significant jump for Ventura, a close ally of European far-right parties who dubs himself ‘anti-system’ and has fuelled fears among rights groups for discriminatory views towards minorities. His party won just 1.3% of votes in the 2019 legislative elections.
Rebelo de Sousa, in an apparent dig at Ventura – whose campaign catchphrase was that he would represent the ‘good Portuguese’ and not those who lived off the state – vowed to be a president who “stabilises, unites, who is not only of the ‘good’ against the ‘bad'”.
COVID-19 DEATHS, CASES SURGE
Masked, socially distanced and using their own pens, voters were subjected to extensive measures by local councils to prevent contagion during the voting process.
Still, almost two-thirds of Portuguese thought the election should have been postponed because of the pandemic, a poll last week by research institute ISC/ISCTE showed.
“Since the date of the elections wasn’t changed, I decided to come early,” said Cristina Queda, 58, who arrived at her polling station in Lisbon as soon as it opened at 8 a.m. to “avoid groups and queues”.
The country of 10 million people is reporting the world’s highest seven-day rolling average of new cases and deaths per capita, according to Oxford University data tracker www.ourworldindata.org.
The number of COVID-19 deaths broke records for the seventh day in a row on Sunday at 275, with hospitalisations also at an all-time high and ambulances queuing for several hours at Lisbon hospitals full to capacity.
Portugal has posted a total of 10,469 deaths from COVID-19 and 636,190 cases.
Casting his vote at a Lisbon school, centre-left Prime Minister Antonio Costa acknowledged the grave stage of the pandemic, but said that “everything was done for people to be able to exercise their democratic right to vote”.
(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Miguel Pereira, Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves; Editing by Andrei Khalip, Philippa Fletcher and Peter Cooney)