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Rebelo de Sousa set for reelection, populist party on rise amid spiralling COVID-19 infections

Portugal’s incumbent President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, is widely expected to win the presidential elections on Sunday, polling with more than 60%. But all eyes are on André Ventura, whose emerging populist party Chega is polling at 11%.

Among growing public unrest, the Chega party is emerging after it won a seat in parliament in 2019, with 1.35 percent of the vote, bringing the far-right to politics for the first time since the country overturned the fascist Salazar dictatorship in 1974. 

According to the latest poll, Rebelo de Sousa remains 44 points ahead of socialist Ana Gomes. The candidate of the radical right, André Ventura, a former soccer commentator known for his xenophobic and racist discourse, is in the third place.

Experts say it is widely unlikely that the Chega party will become a dominant force in Portuguese politics, but there are fears regarding an escalation of violence. Ventura has called for a “reduction” in Muslim communities in Europe and recently referred to Gomes as the “gypsy candidate.” Last year, he called for a black fellow MP with Portugal-Guinean citizenship to be “returned to her own country” in a Twitter post. His party also took to the streets to deny that racism was a problem. Ventura, however, has denied that he is racist or xenophobic.

Although Rebelo de Sousa is set to win, despite a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, the Portuguese government led by António Costa has been blamed by many for relaxing measures to fight the pandemic over the Christmas holidays, with the country now seeing the world’s highest infection rate. Portugal reported 234 deaths related to COVID-19 on Friday and 13,987 cases of infection, the highest number seen in a 24-hour period since the start of the pandemic, bringing the total number of deaths to 9,920.

Abstention in the presidential elections is expected to reach around 60%. The survey for the latest poll took place before January 15, so experts say the week before the campaign and the recent surge in COVID-19 cases could affect the results on Sunday.

The presidential election is taking place without delay despite a national lockdown, with national travel restrictions being lifted on voting day, and officials collecting votes from people who are in quarantine. There has been widespread criticism regarding the decision not to postpone the elections, but the government has said changing the constitution was not possible in such a short time frame.