Portugal’s centre-right president pledges to unite country

Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa signals some common ground with leftist government

Portugal's new centre-right president, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, has promised to work to unite a country divided by a fragmented political landscape and recovering from economic crisis. He won Sunday's presidential race with 52 per cent of the votes, a clear victory that made a second-round vote unnecessary. The 67-year-old lawyer and media pundit beat the leftist candidate António Sampaio da Nóvoa, who was second with 23 per cent, and eight others, to take his place in the Belém presidential palace.

"The first thing I want to do is encourage national unity, close wounds and build bridges," Mr Rebelo de Sousa said, as he acknowledged his victory at Lisbon University, where he has taught law. "It's time to move on."

In October, Portugal was plunged into political crisis following inconclusive general elections. Conservative prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho was unable to secure parliamentary support to continue in power and eventually a leftist coalition, led by Socialist António Costa, replaced him.

The Portuguese president’s duties are mainly ceremonial, but he can veto laws and dissolve parliament.


Mr Rebelo de Sousa, a veteran of the conservative Social Democratic Party (PSD), will be “cohabiting” with a government made up of the Socialists, the Communist Party and the radical Leftist Bloc (BE).


His predecessor and fellow conservative,

Aníbal Cavaco Silva

, was uncomfortable being part of such an arrangement and he openly voiced doubts about the instability the leftist coalition could generate.

In his victory speech, Mr Rebelo da Sousa said one of his main aims was “to reconcile social justice with economic growth and financial solidity”, a sign that he will have at least some common ground with the government working under him.

The Portuguese economy has recovered from the worst of a crisis that saw it request a €78 billion EU bailout in 2011. Unemployment has fallen to 11 per cent from a high of 18 per cent and an unwieldy deficit has been reined in. However, as the new president seemed to suggest, the recovery has left behind many Portuguese, who have been bruised by half a decade of austerity.

On coming to power, the leftist government, particularly the Communists and BE, vowed to battle inequality and roll back spending cuts. So far, the government has moved to raise the minimum wage, reduce working hours and cut taxes. However, on presenting the 2016 budget at the weekend, Mr Costa’s administration insisted it complied with euro zone targets.


Although Mr Rebelo de Sousa has a long association with Portugal’s political right and was leader of the PSD for a spell in the late 1990s, he kept his distance from the party during the campaign.

While hailing his political acumen and intelligence, Jornal de Notícias newspaper warned that he is "unstable and too unpredictable". That reputation has been fuelled by episodes such as his decision to leap into the Tagus during an election campaign in 1989, in an attempt to draw attention to the river's pollution.

Perhaps, then it is no surprise that the famously mercurial football coach José Mourinho endorsed Mr Rebelo de Sousa shortly before Sunday’s election.

"He is a genuine character, a showman," noted columnist Áurea Sampaio in Público newspaper. She also pointed out that during the presidential campaign, Mr Rebelo de Sousa worked hard to occupy the centre ground, talking glowingly about proposals such as a 35-hour working week and "stimulating consumer spending, which the right hates but which has become a centrepiece of António Costa's economic policy".

The rest of Europe will be watching Portugal closely, to see how much leeway the European authorities are prepared to give the country as it loosens the belt of austerity.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain