Voting is underway for the most contentious presidential election in Brazilian history, with former left-wing President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva set to beat far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro.
Left-wing frontrunner da Silva, popularly known as Lula, said he was running for president “to bring the country back to normal after four years of President Bolsonaro’s rule.”
“We don’t want more hate, more discord. We want a peaceful country,” said the 76-year-old ex-president, who is aiming for a comeback after leading Brazil from 2003 to 2010. “This country must reclaim the right to happiness.”
Around 156 million people are entitled to vote.
Recent opinion polls have given Lula a clear lead. The latest Datafolha poll released on Saturday found that 50 percent of those wanting to vote said they would vote for Lula, versus 36 percent for Bolsonaro.
The polling institute surveyed 12,800 people with an error rate of plus or minus two percentage points.
Decked out in Lula stickers, Adriana Schneider voted at an elementary school in Rio de Janeiro. The 48-year-old university professor said Bolsonaro’s government has been “disastrous” for investments in culture, arts, science and education.
“We live under a barbaric government,” she said.
In Rio’s Rocinha neighborhood, Manuel Pintoadinho, a 65-year-old metalworker, said he voted for Bolsonaro and didn’t blame him for the tough economic times.
“The pandemic ruined everything, inflation is really high,” Pintoadinho said. “It is not his fault.”
Presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva votes at a polling station in Sao Bernardo do Campo, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil [Mariana Greif/Reuters]
Bolsonaro has signaled he might refuse to accept defeat, fueling fears of an institutional crisis or post-election violence. A message projected onto the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro before the vote read: “Peace in the elections.”
Voting in Rio, Bolsonaro said he expected to win the election on Sunday’s first round, despite his poor showing in polls. The former army captain doesn’t trust pollsters, saying their findings don’t match the support he’s seeing at his campaign rallies.
“If we have clean elections, we will win today with at least 60 percent of the vote,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted to his social media before the vote. “All the evidence we have speaks for us. The other side couldn’t take to the streets, didn’t fight, has no acceptance, no credibility.”
Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said: “A lot of people today are asking if Lula will win today or if there will be a second round on October 30th”.
Like several of its Latin American neighbors struggling with high inflation and large numbers of people excluded from formal employment, Brazil is considering a political swing to the left.
Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Peru’s Pedro Castillo are among the left-leaning leaders in the region who recently took power.
“victim of a lie”
Lula rose from poverty to the presidency and, during his 2003-2010 tenure, is credited with building a comprehensive welfare program that has helped lift tens of millions out of poverty.
But he is also known for his government’s involvement in major corruption scandals involving politicians and businessmen.
Lula’s own convictions for corruption and money laundering led to a 19-month prison sentence and barred him from the 2018 presidential campaign, which polls showed had led against Bolsonaro.
The Supreme Court later overturned Lula’s conviction on the grounds that the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors.
In the vote in São Bernardo do Campo on Sunday, Lula confirmed the dramatic turn in his fortunes after a conviction he says was politically motivated.
“This is an important day for me,” he said. “Four years ago I couldn’t vote because I was the victim of a lie… I want to try to help my country get back to normal.”
People line up outside a polling station in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday to cast their votes [Lucas Landau/Reuters]
Bolsonaro grew up in a humble family before joining the army. He eventually turned to politics after being forced out of the military for openly pushing for increases in soldiers’ salaries.
During his seven terms as a marginal legislator in the lower house of Congress, he regularly expressed nostalgia for the country’s two-decade military dictatorship.
The president vows to defend “God, country and family” and retains the relentless support of his base – evangelical Christians, security hardliners and powerful agribusiness.
However, the 67-year-old has lost moderate voters with his management of the weak economy, his barrage of attacks on Congress, the courts and the press, a wave of destruction in the Amazon rainforest and his failure to stem the ravages of COVID-19, which took the lives of more than 685,000 people in Brazil.
Scenario after the results
There is a chance that Lula will win in the first round without requiring an October 30th runoff. To do this, he would need more than 50 percent of the valid votes, excluding invalid and blank ballot papers.
A clear victory would sharpen the focus on Bolsonaro’s response to the count, as he has repeatedly questioned the reliability of not only opinion polls but electronic voting machines as well.
Analysts fear he has laid the groundwork to dismiss results.
At one point, Bolsonaro claimed to have evidence of fraud but never produced any, even after the electoral commission set a deadline for doing so. As late as September 18, he said if he doesn’t win the first round, something must be “abnormal.”
Political scientist Adriano Laureno said it was likely Bolsonaro would try to contest the result if he lost.
“But that doesn’t mean he’ll be successful. The international community will be quick to recognize the outcome… There may be some kind of turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the transition, but there is no risk of democratic rupture,” Laureno said.
A winner could be announced within hours of the polls closing at 17:00 Brazilian time (20:00 GMT).
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