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Brazil election authority: Bolsonaro, Lula headed to runoff

Voters line up outside at a polling station.
Voters line up at a polling station Sunday in the capital of Brasilia, Brazil.
(Eraldo Peres / Associated Press)

Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftist Workers’ Party got the most votes in Brazil’s presidential election Sunday, but not enough to avoid a runoff vote against his far-right rival, incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

With 99.9% of the votes tallied, Lula had 48.4% support and Bolsonaro 43.2%. The nine other candidates trailed far behind.

Because neither Lula nor Bolsonaro received more than 50% of the valid votes, which exclude spoiled and blank ballots, a second round vote between them will be scheduled for Oct. 30.

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The tightness of the result came as a surprise, since pre-election polls had given Lula a commanding lead. The last Datafolha survey, published Saturday, found a 50% to 36% advantage for him among those who intended to vote. It interviewed 12,800 people, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

The highly polarized election will determine whether the world’s fourth-largest democracy returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-largest democracy or keeps the far-right leader in office for another four years.

The election wound up being far tighter than anticipated, both in the presidential contest and in those for governorships and congressional seats.

“The far right has shown great resilience in the presidential and in the state races,” said Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo.

“It is too soon to go too deep, but this election shows Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was not a hiccup,” he added.

Bolsonaro performed well in Brazil’s southeast region, which includes populous Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, according to Rafael Cortez, who oversees political risk at consultancy Tendencias Consultoria.

“The polls didn’t capture that growth,” Cortez said.

Despite the smoke clogging the air of entire Amazon cities, Brazilian state elections have largely ignored environmental issues.

Bolsonaro’s administration has been marked by incendiary speech, his testing of democratic institutions, his 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 defending conservative values, rebuffing political correctness and presenting himself as protecting the nation from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal liberties and produce economic turmoil.

While voting Sunday, Marley Melo, a 53-year-old trader in the capital of Brasilia, sported the yellow of the Brazilian flag, which Bolsonaro and his supporters have co-opted for demonstrations. Melo said he is once again voting for Bolsonaro, who met his expectations, and he didn’t believe the surveys that show him trailing.

“Polls can be manipulated. They all belong to companies with interests,” he said.

Fernanda Reznik, a 48-year-old health worker, wore a red T-shirt — a color associated with Lula’s Workers’ Party — to vote in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana neighborhood, where pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators often congregate, and had been waiting in line for 40 minutes.

“I’ll wait three hours if I have to,” said Reznik, who no longer bothers talking politics with neighbors who favor Bolsonaro. “This year the election is more important, because we already went through four years of Bolsonaro and today we can make a difference and give this country another direction.”

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 coping with high inflation and a vast number of people excluded from formal employment, Brazil is considering a shift to the political left.

An outright win by Lula would have sharpened focus on Bolsonaro’s reaction to the count. The incumbent has repeatedly questioned the reliability of not only opinion polls, but also Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Analysts fear he has laid the groundwork to reject results.

At one point, Bolsonaro claimed to possess evidence of fraud but never presented any, even after the electoral authority set a deadline to do so. He said as recently as Sept. 18 that if he didn’t win in the first round, something must be “abnormal.”

The steep rise in police violence has been celebrated by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has pushed for laws that would provide immunity for officers who commit homicide in the line of duty.

Lula, 76, was once a metalworker who rose from poverty to the presidency and is credited with building an extensive social welfare program during his 2003-10 tenure that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class.

But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in vast corruption scandals that entangled politicians and business executives.

Lula’s convictions for corruption and money laundering led to 19 months’ imprisonment, sidelining him from the 2018 presidential race that polls indicated he had been leading against Bolsonaro. The Supreme Court later annulled the convictions on grounds that the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors.

Social worker Nadja Oliveira, 59, said she had voted for Lula and attended his rallies, but since 2018 votes for Bolsonaro.

“Unfortunately the Workers’ Party disappointed us. It promised to be different,” she said in Brasilia.

Others, like Marialva Pereira, are more forgiving. She said she would vote for the former president for the first time since 2002.

“I didn’t like the scandals in his first administration, never voted for the Workers’ Party again. Now I will, because I think he was unjustly jailed and because Bolsonaro is such a bad president that it makes everyone else look better,” said Pereira, 47.

After casting his ballot in Sao Bernardo do Campo, the manufacturing hub in Sao Paulo state where he was a union leader, Lula recalled that four years ago he was imprisoned and unable to vote.

“I want to try to make the country return to normality, try to make this country again take care of its people,” he told reporters.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro summoned his supporters into the streets to challenge the voting system ahead of October’s election.

Bolsonaro grew up in a lower-middle-class family before joining the army. He turned to politics after being forced out of the military for openly pushing to raise servicemen’s pay. During his seven terms as a fringe lawmaker in Congress’ lower house, he regularly expressed nostalgia for the country’s two-decade military dictatorship.

His overtures to the armed forces have raised concern that his possible rejection of election results could be backed by top brass.

On Saturday, Bolsonaro shared social media posts by right-leaning foreign politicians, including former U.S. President Trump, who called on Brazilians to vote for him. Israel’s former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed gratitude for stronger bilateral relations, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban also praised him.

After voting Sunday morning, Bolsonaro told journalists that “clean elections must be respected” and that the first round would be decisive. Asked if he would respect results, he gave a thumbs up and walked away.

Leda Wasem, 68, had no doubt that Bolsonaro would win outright in the first round. Wearing a jersey of the national soccer squad at a polling place in downtown Curitiba, the real estate agent said an eventual Lula victory could have only 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,” she said.


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