LISBON, Portugal — Portuguese voters began voting Sunday to choose their president, in an election being closely watched in Brussels as the country recovers from a 78-billion-euro (US$85-billion) bailout. Although the post is largely ceremonial, the president has make-or-break power over the nation’s fragile ruling alliance and the power to dissolve parliament in the event of a crisis. Since inconclusive elections in October, Portugal’s minority Socialist government has been relying on a delicate coalition with the extreme-left to run the country of 10.4 million people. The overwhelming favorite for the next head of state is a TV pundit, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. Known as “professor Marcelo” to his fans, he comes into the race with a popularity that has been built thanks to decades in the public eye. “I voted for professor Marcelo. I have been seeing him on television for years and I know his political beliefs,” said Mario Machado, a 72-year-old pensioner, speaking in a posh Lisbon quarter.
The 67-year-old law professor has been involved in Portuguese politics and media since his youth, co-founding a weekly newspaper in his 20s and helping to establish the centre-right Social Democratic Party. Starting in the early 2000s he made his debut as a political analyst on TV, delivering clever commentary to a viewership that quickly grew. “People love Marcelo because he is entertaining,” said Rebelo de Sousa biographer Vitor Matos. His popularity is widely expected to help him break the 50-percent mark for an outright win in Sunday’s voting. If none of the 10 candidates breaches this threshold, a run-off will be held on Feb. 14. ‘Charismatic winner’ The centre-right bloc of former conservative Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho won the most seats in the October ballot, but lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed since 2011. The government of Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa has promised to implement a moderate program that upholds European Union budget commitments. But it is forced to count on the support in parliament of a bloc of communists and greens that has not renounced its critical stance towards European budgetary rules and Portugal’s membership of NATO.