Aníbal Cavaco Silva, a former centre-right prime minister, appeared almost certain to become Portugal’s next president on Sunday, after winning 50.59 per cent of votes in the first round of the country’s presidential election.
Manuel Alegre, a 70-year-old poet running as an independent Socialist, was in second place with 20.72 per cent, strongly ahead of Mário Soares, the veteran Socialist leader, with only 11-14 per cent.
Three other leftwing candidates polled between 1 and 8 per cent each. Turnout was above 60 per cent.
Mr Cavaco Silva, 66, prime minister from 1985 to 1995, will be Portugal’s first right-of-centre president since the Salazar-Caetano regime fell in 1974.
His overwhelming lead is a setback for the centre-left government of José Sócrates, whose Socialist party backed Mr Soares, the former prime minister and president who steered Portugal to democracy. Mr Soares, 81, fought a lively campaign but failed to turn the election into a two-man race between himself and Mr Cavaco Silva.
His resounding defeat is a further blow to Mr Sócrates, who controversially passed over Mr Alegre to back Mr Soares as the official Socialist party candidate.
Mr Alegre chose to run as an independent and unexpectedly pulled strongly ahead of Mr Soares, a life-long friend, by appealing to leftwing voters disenchanted with tough government measures to discipline public finances.
Mr Cavaco Silva, a hard-headed economist who studied at Britain’s York University, focused his campaign on reversing Portugal’s economic decline, as the country struggles to control a soaring budget deficit and restore economic growth after years of stagnation.
An austere figure respected for his far-reaching reforms, including privatisations, as prime minister, Mr Cavaco Silva has promised to use the president’s powers to the full to promote economic recovery.
Many voters are clearly hoping his election will help to restore the confidence and strong growth Portugal enjoyed during much of his premiership. But opponents accuse him of creating false expectations by promising more than a presidential can legitimately deliver.
Under Portugal’s semi-presidential system, the head of state can veto laws, dissolve parliament and call elections, but has no executive powers.
One government minister said an overreaching of the president’s powers by Mr Cavaco Silva could result in a constitutional clash with the government.
However, business analysts say Mr Cavaco Silva’s support for fiscal rigour could prove helpful to the government in pushing through unpopular reforms to cut the deficit.
The new president will succeed Jorge Sampaio, a Socialist who has served two five-year terms.