Presidential Election 2021

Who are the candidates? What does it mean? David Soares explains the who what why of Portugal's January elections.

You may have noticed, just about, that Portugal is heading for elections on January 24, to elect a new – or not – President for the next five years. This will be the 10th election of the Third Republic, which started in 1976.

Now, what exactly are we voting for?

Unlike the United States, for example, which has a presidential regime, in Portugal, the Parliament (Assembleia da República), whose majority is expressed in the composition of the Government, is the main organ of sovereignty. The president has a more deliberative role, as the warden of the Constitution and the head of armed forces. The president also has the power to dissolve the parliament, appoint the prime-minister (based on parliamentary election results), and call new elections. Furthermore, he or she ratifies international treaties, calls referendums, declares states of emergency (like the one we find ourselves in now), and enacts laws, as well as having the power to veto them, always according to the Constitution.

How did we get here?

Illustration by Bogdan Kamuta

The First Republic, implemented in 1910 after the monarchy was overturned, represents Portuguese democracy’s difficult childhood. This period was marked by instability and clashing schools of thought inherited from the liberal or traditionalist movements that defined most of the political struggles in 19th-century Portugal (the country had a pivotal civil war in the early 1830s). Add to that the internal clash over Portugal’s participation in World War I. In just 16 years, from 1910 to 1926, Portugal had eight different presidents, one of whom (Sidónio Pais) was assassinated.

Related: The 5th of October, 1910: The Day We Became a Republic

The antidote to this instability wasn’t the best: following a coup in 1926, a dictatorial regime was consolidated in the so-called Estado Novo in 1933, which lasted until 1974. During that period, Portugal only had three presidents, all from military backgrounds, and all assigned the role of puppets to the Prime Minister António Salazar, then Marcello Caetano.

Related: A Glimpse of Hell: Lisbon’s Museu do Aljube and the Dictatorship

Sure, there were elections, but strangely the candidate endorsed by the regime’s party (União Nacional) always won. One memorable election was in 1958, when air force general Humberto Delgado (founder of TAP) openly challenged the regime and received broad popular support. When asked what he would do about Salazar when elected, Delgado produced the famous phrase: “I’ll dismiss him, obviously”. Fraud in the election prevented that, and Delgado had to go into exile. In 1965, he was assassinated by PIDE (the regime’s political police) while trying to re-enter Portugal from Spain.

Related: About That Dawn

Democracy was restored with the Carnation of Revolution of 1974 and universal suffrage implemented since. Portugal only had two interim presidents before the first elections in 1976.

Up to the constitutional revision of 1982 (take heed, U.S: a constitution, or parts of it — say, the Second Amendment — can be updated after just six years, let alone 250 years), the president had more powers, they could, for example, more easily dismiss a government without having to dissolve the Parliament and call elections.  The Portuguese were probably lucky enough to have António Ramalho Eanes as president at that crucial time, who used (or didn’t use) these powers wisely. A Constitutional Court (Tribunal Constitucional) was also created, to which the president can preemptively submit laws before enacting them.
The president still has a wide range of powers at his or her disposal but many of them are only to be applied in more extreme cases. Otherwise, the president is not supposed to step on the toes of the government, which is mandated… to govern.

The way the President behaves in office ends up being the object of rather subjective scrutiny. The leadership of the same president within the same stint can, actively or not, be interpreted as taking up the role of opposition leader to the government, unduly stonewalling its initiatives, as well as being its crutch, pushing its policies.

Either way, the assessment of whether the president is doing too little or too much tends to sway in accordance with where it comes from within the political spectrum.

So, who can run for President?

Any registered voter, aged over 35, who is not running for a third consecutive term and who can gather at least 7500 subscribers for their candidacy and, naturally, is a Portuguese national. It is not required that the candidate is born in Portugal, as that would exclude a huge chunk of all Portuguese citizens. Thus, none of that “Show me your birth certificate” nonsense.

Each candidate runs in his or her own name. Political parties may choose to endorse one of them, usually someone they once counted among their ranks. The most eligible candidates often have extensive political experience, but can still manage to convince voters of their magnanimity and ability to remain impartial when it matters.

Because the role of the President isn’t divisive, the election for a second term has usually been a formality for the incumbent. This year’s election seems to be no exception, making it not the most interesting one. According to the latest polls, roughly two-thirds of voters intend to re-elect Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. The actual voting is expected to end up being less than that, but still above the 50% majority to sort matters out on the first round. It will probably depend a lot on the turnout on a pandemic winter Sunday, which might disrupt expectations based on polls.

So, in 2021, who wants to be the tenant of Belém palace for the next five years?

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, the incumbent

Marcelo — he’s seldom called anything else these days— is a former journalist and co-founder of the weekly newspaper Expresso, in 1973. His political involvement has been on and off over the decades, alternating with his position as a law professor. Linked to Partido Social Democrata (PSD — the center-right party) since its foundation in 1974, Marcelo was the leader of that party in the second half of the 1990s, when he was opposition leader to then-prime minister António Guterres (the current UN secretary).

Prior to that, in 1990, Marcelo ran for Lisbon mayor, unsuccessfully, but managed to catch people’s attention during the campaign by swimming across a very sludgy Tagus river. He’s still a keen swimmer and is frequently seen taking ocean dips whenever he can. Some even say he has the most famous nipples in Portugal.

Marcelo’s down-to-earth and accessible style, coupled with good-natured manners and generosity with compliments, had him branded the “Presidente dos afectos” (president of affections), as a stark contrast to the uptight and distant demeanor of his predecessor, Aníbal Cavaco Silva.

But Marcelo’s popularity really goes back to the time in the early noughties when, as a shrewd political analyst, he was a regular feature on primetime TV. Marcelo’s comments were always closed by piles of book recommendations that people believed were read during sleepless nights. Indeed, one of his quirks is the average of four or five hours he purportedly sleeps per night. Another quirk is his witnessed ability to write two different texts with both hands simultaneously.

Beside the usual stick mentioned above that any given president gets, some of Marcelo’s critics blame him for being more style than substance, or even seeking popularity in any form, and that a second term would only serve the purpose of taking selfies with the population who hadn’t had the chance during his first term.

Marcelo was officially endorsed by PSD and CDS (Partido Popular, which is the conservative right).

Ana Gomes

Former diplomat, Gomes appeared in the public eye as the sometimes emotional ambassador to Indonesia — the first after 24 years of severed diplomatic ties over East Timor — during the 1999 crisis that followed the Timorese referendum for independence.

(Note: A former Portuguese colony, East Timor’s independence in 1975 was short-lived, as it suffered that very same year a U.S.-sponsored invasion and subsequent occupation of 24 years by the Indonesian regime, during which it is estimated that up to one third of East Timor’s population was killed. International pressure slowly but gradually mounted to eventually grant the Timorese a UN-sponsored referendum in 1999, where independence won a landslide victory. The weeks that followed saw Indonesian and pro-Indonesian militias making repeated  incursions into East Timor on a final killing rampage. East Timor finally became a new independent nation in 2002 after a transitional period).

Gomes’s political career has been spent mostly as a Member of the European Parliament for three consecutive terms, within the Socialist party (PS). But she’s been on the fringe of that party, which might explain why PS didn’t endorse Gomes for these elections. That snub became predictable last May, when prime Minister António Costa (PS), during a visit to the Autoeuropa Volkswagen factory in Palmela (one of Portugal’s major exporters), alongside Marcelo, expressed his wish for Marcelo to return a year later for “the first year of the President’s new term.”

Needless to say, this statement didn’t go down well among many Socialists, but not necessarily for the sake of Ana Gomes, who’s far from universally supported within the party. Petty for some, courageous for others. A loose cannon for some, an outspoken whistleblower for others. She has raised her voice against various issues, from the government’s dodgy submarine deals to its connivance towards businesswoman Isabel dos Santos (daughter of former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos), from football corruption to money laundering in Madeira’s offshore. Her causes are worthy causes, but she has sometimes been betrayed by her approaches and the measure of her interventions.
She was officially endorsed by PAN-Pessoas, Animais, Natureza (ecological party) and Livre (eco-socialist party)

André Ventura

The name on the lips of many, although frequently omitted to avoid giving him too much publicity. André Ventura spent many years without ruffling feathers within PSD, until he came into the spotlight in 2017, as a Loures city councillor, for making a demeaning blanket statement about the gypsy community.  

Ironically, Ventura’s PhD thesis in 2013 included concerns about the “stigmatization of minorities” and “fear-triggering speech.” 

But in 2019, Ventura veers strongly right and founds his own party, Chega (Enough), and manages to clinch a seat in Parliament in the October elections that year — the first time ever for such a party in Portugal. The country mistakenly thought it was immune to that kind of rhetoric, unlike the rest of Europe, but several polls since have suggested that Chega is on the rise.

Related: Nova Ordem Social and Their Homage to Salazar

Chega and its leader have followed every page of the far-right populist handbook in its speech and social media presence. And it has been doing it so efficiently — contrasting with the chaos and internal quibbles displayed in its last convention — that a few media outlets have raised questions over the guidance and funding it gets.

Ventura is using this election to project himself further as someone to be reckoned with for the future. Polls place him third, at the heels of Ana Gomes, and he’s already said he would resign as Chega’s leader if he got fewer votes than her, but also unsurprisingly tried to retract from his previous affirmation when faced with that possibility.

Marisa Matias

This Coimbra-native sociologist, one of the main figures of Bloco de Esquerda (Leftist Bloc), has been a member of the European Parliament for the past 10 years. It’s the second time Matias has run for president. In 2016, she reached over 10% of votes, which was the highest result by a female presidential candidate, beating the previous outcome of former prime-minister Maria de Lurdes Pintasilgo.

But Matias is unlikely to obtain the same score again, according to the latest polls. She’ll probably have to settle for support from the usual voters of her party, in spite of the respect she might inspire outside her party, for her hard work with a strong emphasis on health-related issues. Matias might struggle to appeal to a broader audience and this current election line-up made it hard for her to make her candidacy stand out from Ana Gomes’s, in particular.

João Ferreira

João Ferreira looms as the future leader of the Communist Party. He’s been city councilor in Lisbon for two terms now. Simultaneously, he’s also been MEP, just like some of his contestants: political activity abroad away from domestic scrutiny seems to boost presidential ambitions. Originally a biologist, Ferreira’s political DNA during his run for president could be described as an extension of the political agenda of his party, albeit it’s slightly more progressive than the helm of the Communist party has been in recent years. He has gained some notable support outside his party, but that might not be sufficient to achieve a good result.

Tiago Mayan Gonçalves

This lawyer from Porto was pretty much unknown to the public before this campaign. Just like the Communist candidate, this one is a simple extension of his party’s ideas: in this case, Iniciativa Liberal (Liberal Initiative), another party that popped up in Parliament from the 2019 elections. Iniciativa Liberal presents itself as libertarian but is essentially neo-liberal on the economic side. Its diagnosis to all socio-economic problems seems to boil down to too much state and too many taxes, and consequently, its solution to all problems is to cut down taxes and let the markets solve them.

Last but not least….

Vitorino Silva (‘Tino de Rans’)

Vitorino Silva became known as Tino de Rans during the PS convention of 1999 for his effusive and comedic speech in support of then-PS leader (and prime minister) António Guterres. Rans is a constituency of Penafiel in the North, where Silva was a councilor.

Silva presents himself as the candidate from the people, a voice of the country away from the spheres of power, whereby, thanks to his profession as a street paver, he claims to “know the streets like no other candidate.” When not working the limestone, he has never entirely left the limelight since 1999: he wrote an autobiography, released a record, and took part in two reality shows (Portuguese versions of The Farm and Celebrity Big Brother), where he had the prowess of hypnotizing chickens, and he was even cast as himself in the comedy show Último A Sair, a spoof of Big Brother.
Having left PS, Silva is a recidivist as Presidential candidate, and in 2021 he runs as a member of his own party: R.I.R. — Reagir, Incluir, Reciclar ( React, Include, Recycle, but the acronym can be read as L.A.U.G.H).
Silva’s typical grinning gaze is still there, but he seems to have gone more serious, judging by his latest comments: Silva has, for example, accused the current president of having “clowned up” the job. Recent polls only give Silva half a percent of votes, which is far from the 3.28% (over 150,000 votes) he got in 2016.

Not all of the above will make it to a museum, so when you get the chance, COVID-permitting, go visit the Museu da Presidência da República, next door to Belém palace.

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