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Tomás Vieira Silva: Portuguese Presidential Elections 2021: Voting during a pandemic

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

On the day Portugal recorded the highest COVID-19 related death toll, the Portuguese people went to the polls to cast their votes in the Presidential Elections. Recent polls suggested that the incumbent President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, was a clear front-runner. However, these elections could be seen as a test to the collective memory of the Portuguese people, with the growing popularity of the far-right candidate André Ventura and rising dissatisfaction with new lockdown measures.


Firstly, it is worth mentioning that under the Portuguese constitution elections cannot be postponed during a state of emergency. Secondly, mail-in and electronic voting are not allowed in the country. Thirdly, while the government holds most of the executive power, the President is incredibly vital, as he can dismiss the government, veto legislation, and order the Supreme Court to review national legislation.


The Candidates and the Results


Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the incumbent: former leader of the centre-right Social Democratic Party (PSD), he was elected President in 2016. He is officially backed by PSD, the right-wing People’s Party (CDS), and unofficially by the current Socialist Prime-Minister, António Costa. Results: 60,7%, re-elected for a second term.


Ana Gomes, the maverick: a career diplomat turned Member of the European Parliament (MEP), she served in this capacity from 2004 to 2019, becoming one of the Parliament’s most prominent voices against human rights violations and corruption. Officially backed by the left-leaning People-Animals-Nature (PAN) and FREE (LIVRE) parties. Results: 12,97%.


André Ventura, the far-right candidate: former member of PSD, he is a founding member, current president, and sole MP of the far-right right ‘Enough’ (CHEGA!) party. Previously, he has said he wanted to send black Portuguese law-makers back to “where they came from” and was in favour of ethnicity-based lockdowns. Ventura has proposed the scrapping of the current constitution and the establishment of a Presidential regime. Officially backed by CHEGA!. Results: 11,9%.


João Ferreira, the new-blood: a member of the Portuguese Communist Party, he has served as an MEP since 2009. He is also a member of the Lisbon City Council. Officially backed by the Communist Party and the Green Party. Results: 4,32%


Marisa Matias, the progressive: running for the presidency for a second time, she has been a MEP since 2009, as part of the European United Left–Nordic Green Left group. Officially backed by the Left Block. Results: 3,95%.


Tiago Mayan Gonçalves, the newcomer: founding member of Liberal Initiative, he was an unknown local councilman from Porto. Avid proponent of small government and free-market, he ran as the “only truly democratic candidacy on the right” for President. Officially backed by Liberal Initiative. Results: 3,22%.


Vitorino Silva, the people’s candidate: former local councilman and current street paver, Silva is the founder of RIR - React, Include, Recycle and also ran for President in 2016. Officially backed by RIR. Results: 2,94%.

Turnout: 39,49%.


Analysis of the results


In what was the tenth Presidential election since the fall of the dictatorial regime in 1974, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was re-elected for a second term. Ana Gomes, the fourth woman to ever run for the presidency, came in second, trailing the president by over 47 points. In what could be seen as a test to the memory of a country that was under a fascist dictatorship, André Ventura, the far-right candidate, is behind the former Socialist MEP by only one point. It is worth mentioning that Marie Le Pen attended the launch of Ventura’s campaign, and Matteo Salvini sent an endorsement through a video message for the closing campaign event. In what was the second time Ventura went to the polls as a CHEGA! candidate, he registered a significant increase of over 400 thousand votes in relation to the 2019 General Elections.


Marisa Matias who, in 2016, surprised the polls and got third place (capturing more than 400 thousand votes), fell to fifth place, and got around 164 thousand votes. Tiago Mayan Gonçalves, a seemingly unknown candidate, rose above 130 thousand votes – a decisive increase for the Liberal Initiative, who had captured little over 67 thousand votes in the 2019


General Elections, the first elections the party participated in.

Lastly, turnout was the lowest ever registered in Portuguese Presidential elections, falling below 40 percent. While further studies are needed to understand the current results and turnout number, it must be said that re-election years usually have lower turnouts, and that many people were unable to vote due to COVID-19 regulations.


What does it mean for Portugal and for the Portuguese Presidency of the EU?


Until 2019, Portugal was one of the few countries in Europe where the populist far-right had struggled to make significant gains. However, that changed with CHEGA!’s entry to Parliament in 2019. With an increase in his vote share and coming in second place in many moderate and left-leaning councils, this could point towards a growing discontent towards those currently in power – namely, the current socialist Government, which is a minority under a hung parliament. Due to its unstable party base and to his radical supporters, attention is now turned to the local elections later on in 2021, particularly to the councils where Ventura performed well in relation to his moderate opponents.


While it is the Prime Minister, as head of the Government, that supervises the Presidency of the EU, the President of the Republic has an important role in promoting and securing positive diplomatic relations. As Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is an established figure in European politics and a supporter of the European project, this election might have a positive impact in appeasing criticism over the European prosecutor choice.


Ursula von der Leyen congratulated the President on his re-election, tweeting that she is looking forward “to continuing our cooperation during and after the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union.”


Photo by Tiago Miranda, for Expresso


Written by Tomás Vieira Silva, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.


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