RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians vote Sunday in a polarizing presidential runoff that pits an incumbent 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.
More than 120 million Brazilians are expected to vote, but 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 in the October 2 first-round elections, da Silva finished first among 11 candidates with 48% of the vote, while Bolsonaro was second with 43%, showing that opinion polls significantly underestimated the president’s popularity. . Many Brazilians support Bolsonaro’s defense of conservative social values and he has bolstered his support through vast government spending.
Candidates in Brazil who finish first 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 won the endorsement of the governors of the three most populous states, and allied politicians scored big victories in the 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. The Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing state capitals to provide free public transportation on election day, and da Silva and Bolsonaro focused on turnout.
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 without any evidence that da Silva’s return to power would usher in communism, the legalization of drugs, abortion, and the persecution of churches.
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 has also targeted Bolsonaro for instigating a policy funneling billions to lawmakers for pet projects in return for political support. It is called the “secret budget”, due to a lack of transparency on the end uses of the money, and da Silva said he had exhausted funds for major social spending.
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.”