Brazil’s two main presidential candidates went head-to-head Sunday night in a highly polarized election that could determine whether the country returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-largest democracy or keeps the far-right incumbent at the helm. charge for another four years. .
The race pits incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro against his political nemesis, leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. There are nine other candidates, but their support pales before that of Bolsonaro and da Silva.
With 91.6% of the votes counted, da Silva had 47.3%, ahead of Bolsonaro with 44.2%, according to the electoral authority.
It seems increasingly likely that neither of the two main candidates will receive more than 50% of the valid votes, which excludes null and blank ballots, which would mean that a second round of voting will be scheduled for October 30.
“Most likely, we will have a second round,” said Nara Pavão, a political science professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco. “The probability of finishing the election now (in the first round) is too small.”
Recent opinion polls had given da Silva a commanding lead: the latest Datafolha poll published on Saturday found a 50% to 36% lead for da Silva among those who intended to vote. He interviewed 12,800 people, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
The election ended up being much closer than expected, both in the presidential race and in that of governorships and seats in Congress.
“The far right has shown great resilience in presidential and state elections,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.
“It’s too early to go too deep, but this election shows that Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was not a setback,” he added.
Bolsonaro outperformed in Brazil’s southeastern region, which includes the populous states of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, according to Rafael Cortez, who oversees political risk at consultancy Tendencias Consultoria.
“The polls didn’t capture that growth,” Cortez said.
The Bolsonaro administration has been characterized by incendiary discourse, its testing of democratic institutions, its widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worst deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years.
But he has built a devoted base by championing conservative values, rejecting political correctness and portraying himself as someone who protects the nation from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal freedoms and produce economic turmoil.
Voting early Sunday, Marley Melo, a 53-year-old shopkeeper from the capital Brasilia, wore the yellow of the Brazilian flag, which Bolsonaro and his supporters have chosen for demonstrations. Melo said that he is voting once again for Bolsonaro, who met his expectations, and does not believe the polls show him trailing.
“Polls can be manipulated. They all belong to companies with interests,” he said.
A slow economic recovery has yet to reach the poor, with 33 million Brazilians going hungry despite higher welfare payments. Like several of its Latin American neighbors facing high inflation and large numbers of people excluded from formal employment, Brazil is considering a shift to the political left.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the reliability of not only opinion polls, but also Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Analysts fear that he has laid the groundwork to reject the results.
At one point, Bolsonaro claimed to have proof of fraud but never produced any, even after the electoral authority set a deadline to do so. He said as recently as Sept. 18 that if he doesn’t win in the first round, something must be “abnormal.”
Da Silva, 76, was once a metal worker who rose from poverty to the presidency and is credited with building an extensive social welfare program during his 2003-2010 term that helped bring tens of millions to middle class.
But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in major corruption scandals involving politicians and business executives.
Da Silva’s own corruption and money laundering convictions landed him 19 months in prison, leaving him out of the 2018 presidential race that polls show he had led against Bolsonaro. The Supreme Court later overturned da Silva’s convictions on the grounds that the judge was biased and in collusion with prosecutors.
Social worker Nadja Oliveira, 59, said she voted for da Silva and even attended his rallies, but since 2018 she has been voting for Bolsonaro.
“Unfortunately, the Workers’ Party disappointed us. It promised to be different,” he said in Brasilia.
Others, like Marialva Pereira, are more forgiving. She said that she would vote for the former president for the first time since 2002.
“I didn’t like the scandals in his first administration, I never voted for the Workers’ Party again. Now I will, because I think he was unjustly imprisoned and because Bolsonaro is such a bad president that he makes everyone else look better.” said Pereira, 47.
Speaking after casting his vote in Sao Bernardo do Campo, the manufacturing center in Sao Paulo state where he was a union leader, da Silva recalled that four years ago he was jailed and could not vote.
Bolsonaro grew up in a lower-middle-class family before joining the military. He turned to politics after he was forced out of the military for openly lobbying for higher military pay. During his seven terms as a fringe lawmaker in the lower house of Congress, he regularly expressed nostalgia for the country’s two decades of military dictatorship.
His overtures to the armed forces have raised concerns that his possible rejection of the election results may be backed by senior commanders.
On Saturday, Bolsonaro shared social media posts from right-wing foreign politicians, including former US President Donald Trump, who called on Brazilians to vote for him. Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for the stronger bilateral relations and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán also praised him.
After voting on Sunday morning, Bolsonaro told reporters that “clean elections must be respected” and that the first round would be decisive. When asked if he would respect the results, he gave a thumbs up and walked away.
Leda Wasem, 68, had no doubt that Bolsonaro will not only be re-elected. Wearing a national soccer team jersey at a polling place in downtown Curitiba, the real estate agent said an eventual victory for da Silva could only have one explanation: fraud.
“I wouldn’t believe it. Where I work, where I go every day, I don’t see a single person who supports Lula,” he said.