How the Covid-19 pandemic is shaking up the Portuguese presidential campaign

On Wednesday, Covid-19 indicators in Portugal broke new records with the death of 156 people and the census of 10,556 new cases. The easing of restrictions with the end of the year holidays could be the cause of this rebound.

After an already difficult second wave, Portugal has therefore resigned itself to adopting a second “general” confinement. This will be effective from Friday, announced Prime Minister Antonio Costa. Unlike the one in spring, schools will remain open, as will the courts or churches, the head of the socialist government said. “The rule is simple: each of us must stay at home,” he said, confirming the closure of non-essential shops, cafes and restaurants.

On the other hand, exceptionally, voters will be able to vote in the first round of the presidential election scheduled for January 24. Those who wish can even do it early on this Sunday. However, the authorities fear a strong abstention because of the health context. The president has also stepped up the tests in recent days, leading to a halt of the official campaign, more than ever rushed.

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A multi-tested and isolated chair

On Tuesday, the presidential campaign in Portugal was halted just two days after its official start. This, while waiting for outgoing candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, big favorite in the January 24 poll, to pass a new test confirming that he was finally negative for the new coronavirus. After a first positive test made public on Monday, the head of state carried out a second test which turned out to be negative and therefore had to pass another “confirmatory test” on Tuesday.

“The test carried out this morning (…) was again negative. The president is now awaiting instructions from the health authorities,” the presidency said in a brief statement released at the end of the day. “Asymptomatic”, this 72-year-old curator immediately canceled all his appointments.

Returning home Tuesday evening, he said he was “very annoyed” not to have received from the health authorities a clear instruction concerning his participation in the televised debate which was soon to oppose him to his six opponents. When in doubt, he decided to participate by videoconference.

Last Wednesday, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa had already spent a few hours in “administrative segregation” when a member of his entourage had tested positive, but had not been placed in quarantine because his contact with the person concerned had been judged “low. risk”.

The fear of a strong abstention

Portuguese law prohibits limiting political activities, Prime Minister Antonio Costa recalled on Tuesday. The political parties therefore act without nets and must adapt their campaign to the restrictions.

In general, the rivals of the conservative Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa fear that the ballot will be the victim of a historic abstention. Even if the disenchantment with politics is high. “With or without Covid, this election would in any case record a historic abstention record”, which could approach 75%, commented political scientist Carlos Jalali, of the University of Aveiro, to the newspaper Public. According to him, the turnout should continue a downward trend already observed in previous presidential elections and which will be accentuated by the very likely victory of the incumbent.

To prevent the health situation from further increasing abstention, the electoral authorities have extended the possibility of advance voting, starting next Sunday. Local authorities will also be able to go to voters in quarantine and to elderly people living in retirement homes to collect their ballot.

In Portugal, the President of the Republic is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term, renewable once. He has no executive power, but plays the role of arbiter in a political crisis and can dissolve Parliament.


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