Confinement Slows Portugal, But Not Its Presidential Elections

The confinement decreed in the midst of a fired pandemic has slowed down activity in Portugal, but not its presidential elections, while the Portuguese question whether it is the best time to go to the polls and campaign.

Two days before the elections, postponement is no longer an option, although at the time it was several voices, including the leader of the conservative opposition, Rui Rio, who opened the door to this possibility that would force a constitutional review. The idea, however, was discarded and the elections continued to be scheduled for this Sunday 24, when more than 9 million voters residing in the national territory will be able to leave their home in full confinement to deposit their ballot in the ballot box.

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“Voting is safe”, say the signs placed, among other places, in the Lisbon Metro, in which it is reported that it will be mandatory to wear a mask, keep the distance in line, disinfect your hands and, if possible , bring your own pen. Some still doubt whether sufficient measures have been taken to vote in the country with the highest number of new infections per million inhabitants in the last seven days, according to the University of Oxford.

“I think it was not the best time to make elections,” says Anselmo in his grocery store in the center of Lisbon, where he points out that “there has not been much participation from the people in early voting and there are a number of logistical problems that they could have been avoided “if they had been planned with more time. This Thursday, the Portuguese authorities announced the closure of schools due to the increase in infections and after four days registering daily records in the number of deaths.

The authorities expanded early voting this year, for which almost 250,000 people registered, a record figure, but still low if one takes into account that there are more than 9 million people who can vote in Portugal, to which is added another million and a half abroad.

The number of tables has also been expanded, the ballots of the infected and people in isolation have been collected in their own homes – although those who test positive in the previous 10 days are left without voting – and the elderly are allowed in residences that they vote in the centers themselves.

But there are Portuguese who demand other methods to vote without approaching the polling stations. “There is still no way to vote digitally, which is what there should have been for quite some time,” laments Rui Duarte, a Lisbon taxi driver who does not believe that it is the best time to vote.

Between the pandemic and the great popularity of the current president and candidate for reelection, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, whom the polls give the victory in the first round with more than 60% of the vote, abstention in these elections is expected to skyrocket. In 2016 it already exceeded 50%, the second highest figure in democracy, and specialists hope that this Sunday it could be between 60% and 70%.

The confinement has not stopped the electoral campaign of the seven candidates for the presidency and, although in general with a shorter schedule than usual, these days it has been possible to see candidates leading events in the street and even mass dinners.

The most controversial case so far has been a dinner organized by the far-right candidate, André Ventura, who gathered 170 people in a closed space last Sunday and which, according to local media, was held against the opinion of the health authorities. This Thursday, a group of protesters threw stones and other objects at the ultra leader as he left a campaign event in Lisbon, which ended with police charges.

With record numbers of deaths and hospitals on the brink of collapse, there is no shortage of questioning whether the campaign should have been suspended, at least since the lockdown came into effect on January 15. “The candidates already campaigned enough to be known and the one they did beyond television should have been suspended with this very serious situation of pandemic and confinement,” says Danielson, a Portuguese who still insists that voting is “almost an obligation of the people. “

“With well-defined rules, there should be a campaign, because people should go to vote,” says Amadeu, who has left home during confinement for a medical issue. However, he clarifies that there are candidates who “are not complying with the rules.” For now, in the streets of Lisbon, emptier than usual, the only thing that reminds us that there are elections on Sunday is a handful of electoral posters. Curiously, none of them is from the favorite, Rebelo de Sousa, who has only spent 25,000 euros in this campaign.

Seven candidates aspire to the Presidency of Portugal this Sunday, a position from which it is not governed, but neither is it a mere spectator, and which has gained renewed importance with the coronavirus pandemic.

Dissolving Parliament, calling elections or vetoing laws are some of the classic powers that the Portuguese Constitution grants to the head of state, a key figure in the country’s semi-presidential system.

With the pandemic, however, other prerogatives not used in democracy have been put into practice and that have been essential, such as declaring a state of emergency and its successive renewals, something that only the president can do, although it needs the approval of Parliament.

That is why in this call to elect the head of state of Portugal for the next five years, questions about how to manage the coronavirus crisis play a fundamental role. Among them, how the candidates would act when faced with thorny issues such as giving power to governments supported by the far right or marking the red lines to dissolve Parliament.

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