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  • Portugal heads to the polls Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016 to elect a new president.

    Portugal heads to the polls Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016 to elect a new president. | Photo: AFP

Published 23 January 2016

The presidential elections could prove to win back power for the center-right Socialist Democratic Party that now forms the opposition in parliament.

Although Portugal got a new socialist government just two months ago, pushing a left-wing agenda is likely going to be an uphill battle for socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa if voters elect large-margin frontrunner Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa in Sunday’s presidential elections.

TV political pundit and center-right Social Democrat Rebelo de Sousa looks like a shoo-in for president with polls indicating he is likely to win over half of the votes in the first round. Polls put him some 30 points ahead of the next contender, making him the clear favorite among the country’s 10 presidential candidates.

With expectations of high abstention rates, Sunday’s election results could still defy predictions in the polls. Despite Rebelo de Sousa’s clear lead, an inconclusive first round could make for a tighter vote in a run-off ballot against the second place candidate, leftist and independent Antonio Sampaio da Novoa, who would likely gain votes from supporters of the Socialist Party’s Maria de Belem and other leftist candidates in a run-off. But most expect Rebelo de Sousa to take Portugal’s top office.

Analysts have interpreted Rebelo de Sousa’s opposition-backed candidacy and likely win as a bid to reclaim political power for the right-wing after a leftist coalition took control of the parliament after October’s general elections.

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa​ I Photo: AFP

Although political power largely rests with Portugal’s prime minister and parliament, the president is not insignificant. Powers of the president include the ability to dissolve the parliament if the president deems it is acting against the normal functioning of democracy and call for new elections.

A Right-Wing Counterweight to Left-Wing Government?

Already facing crisis after years of economic strife and harsh austerity in the poorest country in Western Europe, political stability is a high-stakes issue in Portugal.

Although Rebelo de Sousa has said he is not interested in heading into general elections every six months, he has not ruled out the possibility of dismissing the government. He also has not been clear on what kind of terms he would be on with the socialist-led parliament, but he is backed by the center-right opposition.  

The coalition socialist government was formed between the Socialist Party, the Left Block, the Communist Party, and the Greens after elections in early October left no single party with a clear majority to govern.

The largely unexpected government, which outgoing President Anibal Cavaco Silva resisted on the basis that it would be too risky for Portugal, is facing the challenge of fulfilling the country’s debt commitments to European creditors while staying true to its left-wing electoral promises.

ANALYSIS: Portugal in Precarious Position as Voters Prepare for Elections

Socialist Finance Minister Mario Centeno, who has rejected media commentary that has likened him to former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, has insisted that debt repayment is a must and that Portugal will “turn the page on austerity in a way that is controlled and financially responsible.”

It’s a position that has ruffled some feather within the ruling coalition itself, whose more radical left members have called for some of the onus to be put squarely on the financial system that created the crisis in the first place.

Portuguese Parliament in Lisbon I Photo: AFP

Some of the left-wing presidential candidates also say they would play a tougher anti-austerity line than the new government has done so far. For example, echoing disgruntled voices in the far-left ranks of the government, some leftist candidates said they would have rejected a bank bailout plan approved by the socialist government with opposition support last month. The plan is expected to cost Portuguese taxpayers up to US$3.24 billion.

With the power to exercise political veto, a left-wing president could take a meaningful stand against austerity.

But conservative-backed frontrunner Rebelo de Sousa, on the other hand, despite having said that he will ease-up on his party’s historically pro-austerity line, is likely to try to rein in the leftist government with hopes of maintaining some semblance of the status quo championed by the previously Social Democratic government backing his candidacy.

Why Does Portugal Have a President if Parliament Rules?

Portugal’s dual presidential-parliamentary political system was born in the wake of the 1974 Carnation Revolution that brought a return to democracy after a nearly 50-year dictatorship. The 1976 Constitution refounded the basis of a democratic state, with powers divided between the president and the parliament in a bid to temper the runaway power of the executive that characterized the Salazar dictatorship.

Soldiers and civilians celebrate the victory of the Carnation Revolution on April 25, 1974. I Photo: Reuters

The semi-presidential system had an important purpose in Portugal’s budding and highly-polarized post-revolution democracy. Presidential powers were later scaled back with a constitutional amendment in 1982. But the role of president still stands, despite some arguing that the semi-presidential system was never meant to be permanent.

OPINION: Continuity over Change: Portugal Ahead of the Elections

Some have raised concerns that even though the president is supposed to use “discretionary” powers, ideology can still trump democratic process. President Cavaco Silva rejection of the leftist coalition’s bid to form government, for example, has been interpreted by some as the president ideologically overstepping.

Such a precedent may not bode well for the socialist parliament, likely to soon come up against an opposition-aligned center-right president with powers to dissolve the government.

Amid ongoing economic crisis and potential political instability, what seems certain is that the new government’s promises of raising the minimum wage, reversing public spending cuts, easing tax burdens, among other anti-austerity plans, won’t be a walk in the park to deliver.

WATCH: Left Unity in Portugal

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