Brazil’s polarizing Bolsonaro-Lula contest goes to voters
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians began voting Sunday morning in a polarizing presidential poll that pits an incumbent president promising to safeguard conservative Christian values against a former president promising to return the country to a more prosperous past.
The second round took the form of a close contest between President Jair Bolsonaro and his political enemy, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both are well-known and controversial political figures who arouse both passion and repugnance.
The vote will determine whether the world’s fourth-largest democracy maintains the same far-right political course or returns a leftist to the top job – and, if the latter, whether Bolsonaro accepts defeat.
Bolsonaro was the first to vote at a military compound in Rio de Janeiro. He wore the green and yellow colors of the Brazilian flag that always feature at his rallies.
“I’m waiting for our victory, for the good of Brazil,” he told reporters afterwards. “God willing, we will be victorious this afternoon. In fact, Brazil will be victorious.
Polling stations in the capital, Brasilia, were already packed in the morning, and in one of them a retired government employee, Luiz Carlos Gomes, said he would vote for da Silva.
“He is best for the poor, especially in the countryside,” said Gomes, 65, from Maranhao state in the impoverished northeast region. “We were always hungry before him.”
More than 120 million Brazilians are expected to cast their ballots, and because voting is conducted electronically, the final result is usually available a few hours after polls close in the late afternoon. Most opinion polls have given a lead to da Silva, universally known as Lula, although political analysts agreed the race has become increasingly close in recent weeks.
For months, it appeared da Silva was heading for an easy victory as he stoked nostalgia for his 2003-2010 presidency, when Brazil’s economy was booming and welfare aid helped dozens of million people to join the middle class.
But while da Silva led the October 2 first-round election with 48% of the vote, Bolsonaro was a solid runner-up with 43%, showing that opinion polls significantly underestimated his popularity. Many Brazilians support Bolsonaro’s defense of conservative social values and he has bolstered his support through vast government spending.
Da Silva cast his vote on Sunday morning in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a city outside Sao Paulo where he lived for decades and began his political career as a labor leader. He wore white, as he often did during the campaign, rather than his party red.
“Today we choose the type of Brazil we want, how we want our society to be organized. People will decide what kind of life they want,” da Silva told reporters. “That’s why this is the most important day of my life. I am convinced that Brazilians will vote for a plan where democracy will prevail.
Candidates in Brazil who come out on top in the first round tend to win the second round. But political scientist Rodrigo Prando said this campaign was so atypical that a victory for Bolsonaro could not be ruled out. The president has won the endorsement of the governors of the three most populous states, and his allies have scored big victories in congressional races.
“Politically, Bolsonaro is stronger than anyone imagined,” said Prando, a professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo. “Mathematically, Lula is ahead.”
Twelve gubernatorial races will also be decided, including Brazil’s most populous state, Sao Paulo, the state of Amazonas and the northeastern state of Bahia.
More than 150 million Brazilians are eligible to vote, but around 20% of the electorate abstained in the first round. Both da Silva and Bolsonaro have focused their efforts on attendance. Nearly 400 cities made public transportation free on election day, according to the nonprofit Free Fares for Democracy, and the election authority banned any federal highway police operations affecting voters’ passage through public transport.
Still, there were scattered reports on social media that police were creating obstacles for voters in the northeast region, a Workers’ Party stronghold. And the metro in the capital of Minas Gerais – a crucial battleground state – was charging fares on Sunday in defiance of a regional court ruling. The head of the election authority has ordered the federal corporation that runs the subway to immediately scrap fares or face charges of election crimes.
The candidates have offered few proposals for the country’s future beyond asserting that they will pursue a large social protection program for the poor, despite very limited fiscal space in the future. They railed against each other and launched online smear campaigns – with many more attacks coming from within Bolsonaro’s camp.
His four years in office were marked by proclaimed conservatism and the defense of traditional Christian values. He claimed that his rival’s return to power would introduce communism, the legalization of drugs, abortion and the persecution of churches – things that did not happen during da Silva’s first eight years in power.
“I vote for Bolsonaro because I believe in his project, and I believe in the beloved nation of Brazil, which is what he supports: family, God and country,” said Helena Alves, 53, retired in Brasilia. “He had very little time to govern because there have been two years of the pandemic.
Da Silva focused on Bolsonaro’s widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and said the president failed to care for the most needy members of society. And he painted Bolsonaro as an opponent of the Amazon rainforest, given that he disgraced environmental authorities and presided over a surge in deforestation.
In campaign videos, da Silva also accused Bolsonaro of being behind a policy that awarded lawmakers billions for pet projects in return for political support. Da Silva said spending on the “secret budget” had depleted funds for key social needs.
But for many, the record of da Silva’s Workers’ Party is equally off-putting. A sprawling investigation revealed the party’s involvement in sweeping corruption scandals that have ensnared politicians and senior executives.
Da Silva himself was imprisoned for 19 months for corruption and money laundering. The Supreme Court overturned his convictions in 2019, on the grounds that the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors. That didn’t stop Bolsonaro from reminding voters of the convictions. Da Silva’s potential election would be tantamount to letting a thief return to the scene of the crime, the president has warned.
The president’s formidable digital mobilization has been on display in recent days as his campaign introduces new – and unproven – allegations of possible electoral manipulation. It has rekindled fears that Bolsonaro could challenge the election results if he loses – just like former US President Donald Trump, whom he admires.
For months, he claimed the country’s electronic voting machines were prone to fraud, though he never presented evidence, even after the election authority gave him a deadline to do so.
More recently, the allegations centered on airtime for political ads. Bolsonaro’s campaign claimed that radio stations aired no more than 150,000 election spots and suggested this may have been the result of an intentionally malicious effort to damage his candidacy. The election authority declined to open an investigation, citing lack of evidence.
“We don’t know if this result will be challenged or not, and to what extent,” said Carlos Melo, professor of political science at Insper University in Sao Paulo. “It’s a very difficult second round and a very tense Sunday, and the tensions could continue beyond today.”
Carla Bridi reported from Brasilia. Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese contributed from Sao Paulo.