Portugal’s president appeared poised to win a second term in office Sunday, in an election held amid a devastating COVID-19 surge that has made the European country the worst in the world for cases and deaths.
An exit poll suggested that centre-right incumbent Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa captured 57-62% of the vote, which would give him a final five-year term.
Socialist candidate Ana Gomes came second with between 13-16%, the poll by the Portuguese Catholic University’s Polling Centre for public broadcaster RTP suggested.
In what would be a stunning result, newly arrived right-wing populist André Ventura came third with 16%, the poll indicated. Such a showing for an extremist in mainstream Portuguese politics would have been unthinkable until recently.
Four other candidates ran for president.
The head of state in Portugal possesses no legislative powers, which are held by parliament and the government, but is an influential voice in the running of the country.
The exit poll estimated the turnout at 45-50% — lower than in recent elections and apparently confirming concerns that some people would stay away for fear of being infected with COVID-19. Political leaders say that when the pandemic began to worsen there was no longer enough time to change the Portuguese Constitution to allow a postponement.
Portugal has the world’s highest rates of new daily infections and deaths per 100,000 population, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, and its public health system is currently under huge strain.
Rebelo de Sousa, 72, has long been viewed as the clear front-runner in the contest. He is an affable 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.
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 sneakers and shorts, routinely go viral.
With the country in lockdown, the election campaign featured none of the usual flag-waving rallies but restrictions on movement were lifted for polling day.
Authorities increased the number of polling stations and allowed for early voting to reduce crowding on election day. In other precautions, voters were asked to bring their own pens and disinfectant to polling stations. Everyone voting wore a mask and kept a safe distance from each other.
Prime Minister António Costa, in a tweet, urged people to turn out for the ballot, saying that “unprecedented planning” had gone into ensuring that the vote could take place safely.
Portugal has 10.8 million registered voters, around 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.