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Portugal Hopes for Calmer Political Waters Before Presidential Vote

Portugal's presidential candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa attends an election campaign event in Lourinha, Portugal, Jan. 14, 2016.
Portugal's presidential candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa attends an election campaign event in Lourinha, Portugal, Jan. 14, 2016.

Portugal's stormy political backdrop could shift into calmer waters Sunday when the country votes for a new president, if the man expected to win outright makes good on promises to build consensus rather than foment divisions.

Since November, Portugal has been governed by a shaky alliance of moderate center-left Socialists backed in parliament by the far-left Communists and Left Bloc.

Many analysts do not expect the government to last through its four-year term, and whoever wins Sunday will have the power to dissolve the legislature.

According to opinion polls, that is almost certain to be Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a Social Democrat whose center-right party was ousted from power by the Socialists.

A Jan. 17 survey by Eurosondagem gave Rebelo de Sousa almost 55 percent of the vote, enough to win without a second-round ballot and way ahead of his closest rival, Socialist Sampaio da Novoa, at 16.8 percent.

Portugal's first Socialist-led administration to rely on far-left lawmakers to survive is struggling to reconcile pledges to end austerity with budget deficit cuts promised to the European Union.

That suggests the new president is likely to play an increasingly important role, be it as mediator between parties or a bolder player who can use his power to disband parliament.

Rebelo de Sousa would succeed conservative President Anibal Cavaco Silva, also a Social Democrat, who said he only swore in the Socialist government because he was barred by the constitution from calling a new parliamentary election in his last six months in office.

That option will again be available from April 4, six months after the general election. The president can also dismiss the prime minister.

The leftist parties have warned that Rebelo de Sousa could bring back unpopular rightist economic policies.

But so far, his statements have been in the spirit of rapprochement. The former journalist, one-time leader of his party and until recently a TV commentator has positioned himself as hailing "from the left wing of the right."

"Everything that helps to build political stability, common ground that safeguards governability is a priority. ... Now is not the time for divisions," he said recently.

His campaign stance that Portugal needs "more social justice along with minimum financial equilibrium" is similar to the Socialists’.

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