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Conservative TV pundit tipped to capture Portugal’s presidency

Popular TV pundit Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa is expected to win Sunday’s presidential election in Portugal, which would give him the power of life or death over the nation’s fragile ruling alliance.

While the post of president in Portugal is mostly ceremonial, the head of state can dissolve parliament in the event of a crisis.

That power, known as the “atomic bomb” among the nation’s political commentators, is key as the minority Socialist government has been relying on a delicate alliance with the extreme-left to run the country after inconclusive October elections.

The centre-right bloc of former conservative prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho won the most seats, but lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed since 2011.

The government of Socialist Prime Minister Antonio Costa has promised to implement a moderate programme that respects 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.

The political saga in the nation of 10.4 million is being closely watched in Brussels as the country recovers from a 78-billion-euro ($85 billion) bailout in 2011.

Rebelo de Sousa is a long-time conservative, who has the backing of right wing parties PSD and CDS but who claims total independence.

He would succeed Anibal Cavaco Silva, a conservative who has served two consecutive five-year terms and who had been reluctant to hand power to a leftist coalition he viewed as “incoherent”.

Rebelo de Sousa, who is projected in the latest opinion polls to grab between 52 and 55 percent of the vote, has made his stance clear on the current government.

“The president of the republic cannot have any qualms regarding the government that is in place,” he has said. “I will do everything I can to ensure its stability.”

– ‘Charismatic winner’ –

Under the constitution, the president cannot dissolve parliament until six months after lawmakers are sworn in, which in this case would be in April.

Battling it out far behind Rebelo de Sousa is a crowded field of nine candidates.

Leftwinger Antonio Sampaio da Novoa comes second in the polls, with 17 to 22 percent of votes, followed by former socialist minister Maria de Belem Roseira who is expected to capture between eight and 13 percent of votes.

Rebelo de Sousa, known as “professor Marcelo” to his fans comes into the race with popularity built over decades in the public eye.

The 67-year-old law professor has been involved in Portuguese politics and media since his youth. He co-founded a weekly newspaper in his 20s and helped found 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.

Though his popularity is expected to help him break the 50-percent threshold for an outright win in Sunday’s voting, if no candidate gets enough votes a run-off will be held on February 14.

Rebelo de Sousa has already picked up the support of one international celebrity in his run for the presidency, with sacked Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho backing him in a video on YouTube.

The 52-year-old Mourinho, who parted company with the Premier League champions last month, called Rebelo de Sousa a “charismatic winner” in the video message.