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TV pundit Rebelo de Sousa wins Portuguese presidential poll

Law professor and TV pundit Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 67, was the clear winner Sunday in Portugal’s presidential election, taking 52 percent of the vote.

The overwhelming favourite, Rebelo de Sousa was far ahead of his closest rival, independent leftist Antonio Sampaio da Novoa, who won 22.89 percent, according to a nearly complete count. Fifty percent was required to avoid a runoff.

Although largely ceremonial, Portugal’s presidency has make-or-break power over the nation’s fragile ruling alliance and the right to dissolve parliament in the event of a crisis.

That authority means the ballot is being scrutinised in Europe, given the president’s potential impact on the country’s economic strategy.

Portugal is being watched by Brussels to see whether it will adhere closely to policies of economic stringency that unlocked a 78-billion-euro ($85-billion) bailout package.

“I want to restore national unity,” while “our country is emerging from a deep economic and social crisis,” said Rebelo de Sousa, pledging to “be a free and independent president”.

Among the first to congratulate him, former conservative prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho said “this victory in the first round gives him indisputable political authority”.

Since inconclusive elections in October, a minority Socialist government led by Antonio Costa has been relying on a delicate coalition with the extreme left to run the country of 10.4 million people.

Costa has promised to implement a moderate programme that upholds EU budget commitments.

But it is having to count on the support in parliament of communists and greens critical of EU spending rules and Portugal’s membership of NATO.

– ‘Professor Marcelo’ –

Rebelo de Sousa, a former head of the centre-right Social Democratic Party, had been the big favourite in the 10-candidate race.

Known to TV audiences as “professor Marcelo”, he came into the contest with a popularity built over decades in the public eye.

He has the backing of right wing parties but claims total independence, insisting he will not be partisan but seek to rule “above the fray”.

Prior to the election, he vowed to do “everything I can” to ensure the current government’s stability.

“He is a consensus candidate and a moderate who takes votes both on the left and on the right,” political analyst Jose Antonio Passos Palmeira told AFP.

De Sousa’s image divides opinion however.

“Professor Marcelo is the best candidate. He is an experienced politician who inspires confidence,” said Lisbon voter Cesario Correia, a 69-year-old pensioner.

Accountant Jose Nascimento, 57, was not convinced. “Marcelo’s a showman, a showbiz personality who promises everything to everyone.”

If his election is officially confirmed, he will 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”.

The abstention rate in Sunday’s vote was estimated at 51.2 percent, lower than the record no-show of 53.5 percent in the last elections, in 2011.

The future president will take the oath of office on March 9.

However, under the Portuguese constitution, he is not entitled to use his authority to dissolve parliament until April, when six months will have elapsed since the last elections.