Portugal: A Tale of Two Presidencies

This year Portugal votes and holds the EU Presidency at the same time in the middle of the pandemic
Marcelo Rebelo und Ursula von der Leyen
Der portugiesische Präsident Marcelo Rebelo bei einem Treffen mit Kommissionspräsidentin Ursula von der Leyen im Rahmen der portugiesischen EU-Ratspräsidentschaft. © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Manuel de Almeida

On Sunday, the Portuguese will elect their head of state - despite the Corona pandemic and another lockdown. With the presidency of the EU Council, Portugal is currently also in the spotlight on the European stage.

The Portuguese have shown unity in the Corona pandemic, and no major surprises are expected in the elections for head of state on Sunday: seven candidates are running, and according to the polls the clear favorite is the incumbent president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, with around three quarters of the vote. The 72-year-old "Marcelo" is extremely popular among the people and has been in office since 2016 as an independent candidate, a position that is held for a five-year term by direct election. Although the president mainly assumes representative duties, he is empowered, for example, to dissolve parliament and, with regard to the election results, to nominate or dismiss the prime minister. He is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and is regularly consulted on important political issues. As a conservative at heart, Rebelo de Sousa works smoothly with Socialist Prime Minister António Costa.

Portugal in Strict Lockdown

Not much has changed, one might think, and yet this tenth presidential election is quite different from all previous elections since 1976: citizens are being called to the polls under strict health and security precautions, despite the Corona pandemic. 12,000 polling stations are scheduled to open, 2,000 more than usual to prevent large crowds. Health officials have been collecting votes from nursing homes and people in isolation for days, early voting for registered voters has been organized and absentee voting has been called. Those who vote on Sunday must bring their own pen. The National Election Commission ran a broad education campaign in the run-up. Under the slogan "Voting is safe," online tutorials showed instructions on how to behave properly on Election Day. Voting was as safe as buying a coffee, one video said.

Portugal was praised at the start of the pandemic for its early and decisive response to contain the first Covid-19 wave. Yet in a country of some ten million people, half a million have now contracted the virus, and more than 9,000 have died from it. Due to high infection rates and overcrowded hospitals, a national lockdown is currently in effect and is expected to last for at least a month. Stores, restaurants and theaters are closed, and people are only allowed to leave their homes to go to work, the doctor or the supermarket. Since the beginning of January, Portugal has started vaccinations; the national vaccination plan is to immunize high-risk groups such as the elderly or healthcare workers first.

Council Presidency Off to a Difficult Start

The pandemic will also overshadow the EU Council presidency, which Portugal took over from Germany on January 1. The so-called trio presidency will be concluded by Slovenia. All three countries are working together in depth as part of a joint roadmap, with each country looking to leverage its respective potential. In addition to tackling the healthcare crisis, Lisbon is focusing on climate, digitisation, education, social policy. "Time to act: for a fair, green and digital recovery" is the slogan. The beginning did not cast a good light on the Portuguese government and caused plenty of turmoil: for the European Prosecutor José Guerra was nominated and his qualifications were demonstrably glossed over, although an independent, European advisory body had favored another Portuguese candidate, Ana Carla Almeida. Many saw this as a politically motivated attempt by Prime Minister Costa to push through his preferred candidate. The independence of the new authority, which is supposed to take action against offenses against the EU budget, is thus undermined.

The Liberals' position was clear: in the appointment of prosecutors, objectivity and merit are crucial for EPPO to function, said Dacian Cioloș, leader of the liberal Renew Europe group. "Any suspicion of possible political influence should be avoided." The Portuguese opposition condemned the nomination process, saying the government had "botched the bid for the presidency and concealed facts about the Portuguese candidate's qualifications," said João Cotrim Figueiredo, an MP and party leader of Iniciativa Liberal. From his point of view, the incident has shifted the focus "from what should be the priorities for the European presidency at this stage of the pandemic crisis. To create conditions for social and economic recovery and to look forward with optimism." Lisbon will need that, too, given the many to-dos on its presidency list.

Europe Must Be Geopolitically Active

Portugal is stepping up as a mediator to implement EU budget decisions as quickly as possible. The government is particularly interested in this because of its dependence on EU funds and loans. It makes few public investments, and the consequences are felt in the state health care system, among other things. The country urgently needs the approximately 26 billion euros from the EU's Corona aid package to boost the domestic economy. This also has to do with tourism, which has been idle since the pandemic. Portugal cannot afford to lose another vacation season. The tourism industry generates around 15 percent of the gross domestic product. That's why the EU debate in Lisbon on a Corona vaccination passport to ensure more freedom to travel is being followed closely - a prerequisite for reviving tourism.

Portugal wants to set accents with geopolitics. The country tends to think globally in foreign and security policy, which is advantageous for strengthening the EU as a global player. Lisbon has traditionally had good contacts with India; until the 1960s, Portugal was a colonial power in the Indian state of Goa. Above all, the expansion of economic relations with India and Africa are at the top of the political agenda. Head of government Costa is considered an excellent negotiator. Portugal also wants to draw the EU's attention to terror by the Islamic State in its former colony of Mozambique. There has already been massive tension there since 2018, and hundreds of thousands of people have since been displaced from the north of the country.

A New Approach to Asylum and Migration Policy

Although interests diverge widely on asylum and migration policy, Lisbon wants to bring EU member states back to the table for a common approach. Portugal has a comparatively liberal migration policy and is committed to a pan-European solution. There is no strong opposition to accepting refugees. Unlike in Italy and much of Europe, right-wing populist parties have not yet really taken advantage of the breeding ground for populism - which also exists in Portugal. Issues such as immigration and cultural identity have not been politicized much; economic issues have been in the foreground.

Nevertheless, the challenge at the national level in the future will be how to deal with the increase in votes for the right-wing populist party "Chega" ("Enough"). A year ago, Chega won a seat in the national parliament; now party leader André Ventura is even a candidate for the presidential election. It will be exciting to see whether he or the representative of the left, Marisa Matias, makes for second place. It could be a warning shot for what could lie ahead at the national level in the future if enough protest voters are mobilized. Shrill tones are among the party's goals, including calls for chemical castration of pedophiles, forced labor for prisoners and limiting the posts of president and prime minister to "people born in Portugal." These are radical and inhumane tones for Portugal, which has so far been spared from populist narratives.

Liberals with Steady Growth

The strategy of Iniciativa Liberal pits liberal ideas against right-wing populism and the political agenda dominated by socialist and collectivist parties in Portugal. The party has seen consistent growth, fielding a deputy in the 2019 parliamentary elections and a regional deputy in the 2020 Azores elections. The current campaign for head of state, for which the party is also bidding with a candidate, offers another opportunity to show that, as the party puts it, "liberalism works."


Rahel Zibner is a project assistant at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom for Portugal, Spain and Italy, based in Madrid.

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