Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, Portugal’s most popular television pundit, was elected the country’s new president on Sunday in a decisive victory for the centre-right opposition two months after an anti-austerity Socialist government came to power.
Mr Rebelo de Sousa, a former leader of the opposition Social Democrats (PSD), had polled 52 per cent of the vote with 99 per cent of ballots counted, assuring him an outright victory in the first round without the need for a runoff ballot.
Addressing cheering crowds at the Lisbon law faculty where he taught for many years, Mr Rebelo de Sousa said he would seek to be a politically impartial president “building bridges and healing wounds” as Portugal emerged from a deep economic and social crisis.
His main priority would be to “promote compromise and convergence”.
His closest rival, António Sampaio de Nóvoa, the main left-of-centre candidate, polled 22.8 per cent and conceded victory to Mr Rebelo de Sousa late on Sunday.
Eight other candidates ran. But Mr Rebelo de Sousa had consistently led in opinion polls with more than 50 per cent of the vote. Turnout was just over 48 per cent.
Mr Rebelo de Sousa’s victory is a boost for the PSD, which emerged from an October general election as the largest single political force but lost power to a coalition forged between the centre-left Socialists and two far left parties.
Parties to the left of centre fielded several candidates, hoping to appeal to the widest possible range of voters and force the election to a second round.
Portugal’s president can dissolve parliament, call a general election and appoint prime ministers — powers that could prove crucial to the survival of the minority Socialist government that took office in November. The president can also send legislation to the constitutional court for vetting.
António Costa, the prime minister, depends for support in parliament on the radical Left Bloc and the Communist party after negotiating a previously untried anti-austerity coalition following an inconclusive general election in October.
The critical role of the president was highlighted in the wake of that election when Aníbal Cavaco Silva, the outgoing head of state, resisted swearing in Mr Costa until he provided guarantees that his government would comply with EU rules.
Rifts in the fragile leftwing alliance have already emerged. Should it break up, the new president would have to determine whether to call an early general election or appoint a new prime minister.
Irrespective of his centre-right affiliations, Mr Rebelo de Sousa, 67, a mercurial figure who claims to read two books a day and sleep no more than five hours, has promised to use the president’s powers to avert political crises and nurture the country’s new anti-austerity government alliance.
A professor of law known to millions of TV viewers for Sunday night chats in which for many years he awarded politicians marks out of 10 and explained the ins-and-outs of politics, Mr Rebelo de Sousa has said he will seek “to keep the basis of support for the [new] government intact”.
The presidential election in effect marks the end of the political career of Mr Cavaco Silva, 76, a conservative who has played a critical role in Portuguese politics as prime minister from 1985 to 1995 and president since 2006.