Portugal chooses a president amid a severe pandemic surge

LISBON, Portugal — Portugal held a presidential election Sunday, with the moderate incumbent candidate strongly favoured to earn a second five-year term as a devastating COVID-19 surge grips the European Union nation.

The head of state in Portugal has no legislative powers, which lie with parliament and the government, but is an influential voice in the running of the country.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 72, is regarded as the clear front-runner among seven candidates. He is an affable, approachable law professor and former television personality who as president has consistently had an approval rating of 60% or more.

To win, a candidate must capture more than 50% of the vote. But a severe surge in coronavirus infections in recent days could keep turnout low and perhaps lead to a runoff between the two top candidates, which would take place on Feb. 14. Portugal has increased polling stations and allowed for early voting to reduce crowding on election day.

Portugal has the world’s highest rates of new daily infections and deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, and the public health system is under huge strain.

With the country in lockdown, the election campaign featured none of the usual flag-waving rallies or other large public events, though restrictions on movement were lifted for polling day. Voters were asked to take their own pen and disinfectant to polling stations.

Among the incumbent’s six challengers, right-wing populist André Ventura has attracted curiosity as the first extremist to break into Portuguese mainstream politics. Ventura, 37, could conceivably place second, likely far behind Rebelo de Sousa but drawing a level of support that until recently was unthinkable. That development has unsettled national politics.

Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party, has worked closely with the centre-left minority Socialist government, supporting its pandemic efforts. He also has endeared himself to the Portuguese with his easygoing style. Photographs taken by passers-by of him in public places, such as one last year of him standing in line at a supermarket wearing sneakers and shorts, routinely go viral.

Portugal has 10.8 million registered voters, some 1.5 million of them living abroad. Exit polls were to be published Sunday night, with most results expected by midnight.

Every Portuguese president since 1976, when universal suffrage was introduced following the departure of a dictatorship, has been returned for a second term. No woman or member of an ethnic minority has ever held the post.

Barry Hatton, The Associated Press

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