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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brazil’s election pushes political titans to runoff

The challenger, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, left, and the incumbent, President Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. da Silva leads in the polls.

By Jack Nicas

For months, pollsters and analysts had said that President Jair Bolsonaro was doomed. He faced a wide and unwavering deficit in Brazil’s high-stakes presidential race, and in recent weeks, the polls had suggested he could even lose in the first round, ending his presidency after just one term.

Instead, it was Bolsonaro who was celebrating. While the challenger, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former leftist president, finished the night ahead, Bolsonaro far outperformed forecasts and sent the race to a runoff.

Da Silva received 48.4% of the votes, and Bolsonaro 43.23%, with 99.87% of the ballots counted, according to Brazil’s elections agency. Da Silva needed to exceed 50% to be elected president in the first round.

They will face off Oct. 30 in what is widely regarded as the most important vote in decades for Latin America’s largest nation.

That is partly because of the starkly different visions the two men set forth for this country of 217 million people, and partly because Brazil faces a host of challenges, including environmental threats, rising hunger, a sputtering economy and a deeply polarized population.

But the election will also be widely watched in Brazil and abroad because it is seen as a major test for one of the world’s largest democracies. For months, Bolsonaro has criticized the nation’s electronic voting machines as rife with fraud — without any evidence — and has suggested that the only way he would lose is if the election is rigged.

Bolsonaro told reporters late Sunday that he “overcame the lies” in the polls and that he felt he now had an advantage in the second round. Even with the positive results, he also suggested there could have been fraud, saying he would wait for the military to check the results.

“Our system is not 100% ironclad,” he said. “There’s always the possibility of something abnormal happening in a fully computerized system.”

Bolsonaro had claimed for months that the polls were underestimating his support, using his enormous rallies as evidence. Yet, virtually every poll showed him behind. On Sunday, it was clear that he was right. He performed better in all of Brazil’s 27 states than what Ipec, one of Brazil’s biggest polling firms, had predicted a day before the election, exceeding the projections by at least 8 percentage points in 10 states.

Pollsters appeared to misjudge the strength of conservative candidates across the country. Governors and lawmakers supported by Bolsonaro also outperformed polls, winning many of their races Sunday.

Cláudio Castro, the right-wing governor of Rio de Janeiro state, was reelected in a landslide, with 58% of votes, 11 percentage points more than Ipec’s projection. At least seven of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were also elected to Congress, including his former environment minister, who oversaw skyrocketing deforestation in the Amazon, and his former health minister, who was widely criticized for Brazil’s delay in buying vaccines during the pandemic.

Outside Bolsonaro’s home in a rich, beachside neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, his supporters gathered to celebrate, dancing and drinking out of plastic cups of beer. Many were wearing the bright-yellow jerseys of Brazil’s national soccer team, which has become a sort of uniform for many of Bolsonaro’s supporters. (The president wore one to vote, over what appeared to be a flak jacket or protective vest.)

“We expected he would have an advantage of 70%” of the votes, said Silvana Maria Lenzir, 65, a retiree with stickers of Bolsonaro’s face covering her chest. “Polls do not reflect reality.”

Still, over the next four weeks, Bolsonaro will have to make up ground on da Silva, who held the top spot Sunday. The right-wing president is trying to avoid becoming the first incumbent to lose his reelection bid since the start of Brazil’s modern democracy in 1988.

At the same time, da Silva is trying to complete a stunning political revival that years ago had seemed unthinkable.

Although da Silva ended the night as the front-runner, his speech to supporters took on a somber tone. But he said he welcomed the chance to now debate Bolsonaro one-on-one.

“We can compare the Brazil he built and the Brazil we built,” he said. “Tomorrow the campaign starts.”

A former metalworker and union leader with a fifth grade education, da Silva led Brazil during its boom in the first decade of the century. He was then convicted on corruption charges after he left office and spent 580 days in prison. Last year, the Supreme Court threw out those charges, ruling the judge in his cases was biased, and voters have since rallied behind the man known simply as Lula.

The two men are the country’s most prominent — and polarizing — politicians. The left in Brazil views Bolsonaro as a dangerous threat to the nation’s democracy and its standing on the world stage, while the country’s conservatives see da Silva as an ex-convict who was a central part of a vast corruption scheme that helped rot Brazil’s institutions.

Da Silva, 76, is pitching voters on a plan to raise taxes on the rich to expand services for the poor, including widening the social safety net, increasing the minimum wage and feeding and housing more people.

Da Silva has built his campaign around broad promises for a better future, including a pledge that all Brazilians should be able to enjoy three meals a day. His rallies have also heavily leaned on his Everyman image, with plenty of references to beer, cachaça and picanha, Brazil’s most famous cut of meat.

Bolsonaro, 67, has made his campaign about protecting Brazil’s conservative traditions from what he says are threats from leftist elites. He has made his campaign slogan “God, family, homeland and liberty,” and he has vowed to fight against things such as legalized drugs, legalized abortion, transgender rights, and restrictions on freedom of religion and free speech.

Bolsonaro’s first term has been marked by turmoil, including clashes with the courts, corruption scandals and a pandemic that killed more people than anywhere other than the United States. But it has been his suggestions that he won’t relinquish power if he is voted that has alarmed many Brazilians and the international community.

Last year, Bolsonaro told his supporters there were three outcomes to the election: He wins, he is killed or he is arrested. He then added, “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”

Bolsonaro has questioned Brazil’s electronic voting machines for years, despite the fact that there has been no evidence of widespread fraud in the system since Brazil began using it in the late 1990s.

Four days before Sunday’s vote, his political party released a two-page document that claimed, without evidence, that some government employees and contractors had the “absolute power to manipulate election results without leaving a trace.” Election officials called those claims “false and dishonest” and “a clear attempt to hinder and disrupt” the election.

A day later, at the final debate before Sunday’s vote, Bolsonaro was asked directly if he would accept the election’s results. He did not answer.

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