Portugal chooses president amid surge in virus cases

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Portugal is holding a presidential election, 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 run-off between the two top candidates, which would take place on February 14.

Portugal has increased polling stations and allowed for early voting to reduce crowding on election day.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (Manuel de Almeida/ via AP)

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.

Mr 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 easy-going 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 trainers and shorts, routinely go viral.

Portugal has 10.8 million registered voters, some 1.5 million of them living abroad.

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.

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