Centre-right candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa won Portugal’s presidential election yesterday (24 January), an outcome that should help maintain political balance after a dramatic swing to the left in October’s parliamentary ballot.
In his victory speech, Rebelo de Sousa, 67, said he will work to promote consensus and repair divisions created in the aftermath of the previous election, when the left ousted a centre-right administration that imposed tough austerity under an international bailout in 2011-14.
Portugal’s president is a largely ceremonial figure, but he plays an important role at times of political uncertainty – as have gripped the country since last October’s inconclusive parliamentary election. He has the power to dissolve parliament and fire the prime minister.
Portugal is likely to need all consensus possible as a shaky government of moderate centre-left Socialists dependent on far-left parties for support in parliament tries to reconcile its election pledges to end economic austerity with budget deficit cuts promised to the European Union.
“This election ends a very long election process… that unnerved the country and divided a society already hurt by years of crisis. It is time to turn the page and detraumatise, start an economic, social and political pacification,” Rebelo de Sousa said at the Lisbon University’s Law Faculty where he teaches.
“We have to align social justice with economic growth and financial stability, without compromising the financial solidity for which so many Portuguese sacrificed so much for years,” he said referring to Portugal’s budget consolidation drive of the past few years that helped it out of an acute debt crisis.
With nearly all votes counted, preliminary results showed Rebelo de Sousa, a former journalist and one-time leader of the centre-right Social Democrats, winning 52% of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff.
His closest rival, Socialist Antonio Sampaio da Novoa, conceded defeat after picking up around 23% of the vote. Left Bloc candidate Marisa Matias had 10%.
“I think Marcelo is what Portugal needs now, both as mediator and a bit of a counterweight to the left,” said Maria Joao de Conceicao, a 43-year-old teacher, doing her weekly shopping after casting her ballot.
Many political analysts do not expect the Socialist-led government to serve a full four-year term and the new president could play a key role, either as mediator between the parties or using his power to dissolve parliament and call new elections.
Rebelo de Sousa will succeed President Anibal Cavaco Silva, a fellow conservative who said he only swore in the Socialist government as he was barred by the constitution from calling a new parliamentary election in his last six months in office.
That option will again become possible from 4 April, six months after the parliamentary election.
The leftist parties have said Rebelo de Sousa may seek a return to unpopular right-wing economic policies, but he struck a conciliatory tone during his election campaign, saying Portugal needs “more social justice along with minimum financial equilibrium” – a stance similar to that of the Socialists.
Barely half of registered Portuguese voters cast their ballot in Sunday’s election, though turnout was up slightly from the previous presidential poll in 2011.