A Portuguese landslide

Sorry there was no preview of Europe’s first election for the year, but it was such a foregone conclusion that it didn’t seem worth it. And sure enough, Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa was re-elected last night in a landslide.

Official results show Rebelo de Sousa, who is from the centre-right, with 60.7% of the vote, almost two million votes ahead of his nearest challenger, Ana Gomes (centre-left), on 13.0%. The far right’s André Ventura managed 11.9%, with another four candidates sharing the remainder. Turnout was only 39.5%, down almost nine points on 2016 but not too bad considering the one-sided contest and the fact that Portugal is in lockdown for Covid-19.

Rebelo de Sousa was elected five years ago with 52.0%, despite the fact that the country had elected a centre-left government just a few months earlier. He was previously a well-known law professor and commentator, and voters evidently trusted him to cohabit successfully with a Socialist prime minister – which he has done; the latter was re-elected in 2019 with an increased majority.

It’s one of the clear remaining differences from the Cold War era. In the eastern half of Europe, presidential elections are usually hard-fought, even when (as in Portugal) the office’s powers are mostly ceremonial. Recall, for example, last year in Poland, where the president was re-elected by just two points. But in the west, a non-executive president who seeks re-election almost invariably gets it, usually with no more than token opposition.

There was to be another election in the Iberian peninsula next month, but it’s now in some doubt. Readers might remember that the government of the fractious Spanish region of Catalonia collapsed last October after the supreme court upheld the disqualification of its premier. An early election was scheduled for 14 February, but with the third wave of Covid-19 in full swing, the regional government postponed it until 30 May.

Last week the Catalan high court overturned the postponement and reinstated the original date. The government is appealing, so Catalonia may not know until about a week beforehand whether or not it will actually be voting next month.

The Madrid government evidently suspects the Catalans of changing the date for political reasons rather than the ostensible health concerns; the centre-left has been doing well in the polls, and the pro-independence forces are at risk of losing their majority. The centre-right opposition, usually no friend to the separatists, is also polling badly and has supported the postponement.

Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez has had, to say the least, a difficult time in office. An anti-independence government in Barcelona would make life easier in some respects, but since he depends on the separatists for his own parliamentary majority it could easily turn out to be a mixed blessing.

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