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Portuguese Presidential Elections: The Anatomy of a Predestined Race

The Portuguese system of government includes both the office of President and the office of Prime Minister. In this semi-presidential system, the president often fades into the background. Power is largely exercised by the prime minister and the government they form, with the president being tasked only with broadly ceremonial duties. However, it is not a toothless role. The authority of the head of state extends to the nomination and dismissal of the prime minister, the dissolution of parliament and the veto of legislation. As such, the president is best conceived as a steward for the nation—an important component of a system of checks and balances.

This Sunday, the Portuguese will go to the polls in the first round of the presidential election. A runoff is not expected to be on the cards.

The Candidates

The election is being contested by seven candidates. Of the seven, only three have polled at more than 10%; among that subset, one contender holds a 40 percentage point lead—the current president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The former leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (Partido Social Democrata, PSD-EPP) is polling consistently at around 60%. As such, he is on course for an easy win with a single-digit bump over his performance in the 2016 election. This is not altogether unexpected—all four previous presidents were re-elected for a second term; and all but the first were re-elected with a larger share of the vote.

In contention for second place are Ana Gomes and André Ventura, both of whom are polling in the low double digits. Ana Gomes is a career diplomat and former MEP who has cultivated an image as an anti-corruption campaigner. She is a member of the Socialist Party (Partido Socialista, PS-S&D), the ruling centre-left party. She does not, however, enjoy her party’s support in this election. Presidential elections are ostensibly non-partisan, but in practice the candidates are, overwhelmingly, experienced political operators picked from within party ranks. Still, the absence of a candidate supported by the party which enjoys the most support is not an oversight; rather, it is a political calculation—motivated primarily by the desire to avoid a bruising defeat by going against a president with record levels of popularity.  Gomes’ candidacy is, in no small part, a protest over the absence of a candidate representing the centre-left. 

The search for a platform and legitimation characterises all other candidacies. This is clearest, perhaps, in the case of André Ventura. Ventura is the leader of right-wing Chega (ID). Since Chega was created in 2019, Ventura has been the lead candidate in the European Parliament elections, lead candidate in the parliamentary election and is now the candidate in the presidential election. Ventura’s approach to all three elections is remarkably similar. The bluster, inflammatory rhetoric and hyperbolic goals all serve the purpose of ensuring the party becomes ingrained in the political fabric. Thus far, this strategy has paid dividends, with his party growing in the polls and an expected second or third place in the presidential election.

Turnout

The one key element of this election which is not a foregone conclusion yet is turnout. The overall trend is clear—the share of voters going to the polls has been in steady decline since the 1980s. The last three elections with an incumbent on the ballot have also been plagued by a drop in turnout of roughly 15 percentage points.

Rebelo de Sousa was already voted in by an apathetic electorate in 2016 elections. The turnout in 2016 was the second lowest ever, at 48.7%. If the pattern held, his re-election would be sealed by only around one third of registered voters. This alone would make it a record low. However, that number is likely to be pushed down even further by a perfect storm of other factors:

This will be the first presidential election after the extension of automatic voter registration to Portuguese citizens abroad. The move has led to a five-fold increase in the number of non-resident voters, but this is a population who is not meaningfully engaged—turnout in 2016 was a lowly 5%. Overseas electors now make up 12% of the total, which is likely to depress turnout numbers further.

In addition, a third wave of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is raging through Portugal. The country is in a state of emergency, with a lockdown in place—which will be suspended on the day of the election, just to return once it is over. Exactly how the pandemic will impact the election is still unknown, but pollsters have gleaned two trends. For one, it is likely to reduce turnout, potentially due to a combination of a sense of danger in the act of voting itself, a sense that the election is fait accompli, already more or less decided. For another, that the voting intentions of those likely to make it to the polls differ from those of the overall electorate.

This more politically engaged set of voters is expected to direct support away from the main candidate. It is true that even this slice of the electorate favours Rebelo de Sousa. It may not, however, favour the candidate by a large enough margin to avoid a runoff. The question then becomes one of how many of the other electors—who overwhelmingly support the sitting president—will make their vote count. In this election, perhaps the only meaningful adversary for Rebelo de Sousa is turnout.

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