President Jair Bolsonaro outperformed expectations in Brazil’s election Sunday, proving that the far-right wave he rode to power four years ago remains a force as he fought his way into a runoff against leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The most-trusted opinion polls had indicated that Lula was far out front, suggesting he would clinch a majority of votes in the first round. One prominent pre-election survey gave him 14-point lead. But in the end, Bolsonaro came within just 5 points and will face Lula in an Oct. 30 runoff.
On Sunday, Lula won 48.4% of valid votes, which excludes blank and null ballots, while Bolsonaro got 43.2%, according to Brazil’s electoral authority. The first round’s nine other candidates were far behind.
“This is a big defeat for the democratic center that saw its voters migrate to Bolsonaro in a polarized scenario,” said Arilton Freres, director of Curitiba-based Instituto Opiniao. “Lula starts ahead, but it won’t be easy for him.”
The vote was virtually free from the political violence many had feared. Alexandre de Moraes, the Supreme Court justice who also leads the electoral authority, congratulated Brazil for the “safe, calm, harmonious and peaceful” election that demonstrated its democratic maturity.
Yet tensions remain high, as are the stakes. The election will determine whether the country returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-most populous democracy or keeps Bolsonaro in office for another term.
The last four years have been marked by his incendiary rhetoric, testing of democratic institutions, widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in 15 years. But he has built a devoted base by defending conservative values and presenting himself as protecting the nation from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal liberties and produce economic turmoil.
“I understand there is a desire from the population for change, but some changes can be for the worse,” Bolsonaro told reporters after the results were released. Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly claimed without evidence that the nation’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud, didn’t challenge the result.
Lula is credited with building an extensive social-welfare program during his 2003-2010 tenure that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class and saw exports surge amid the global commodities boom. But he is also remembered for his party’s involvement in corruption scandals and his own convictions, which were later annulled by the Supreme Court. The court ruled that the judge had been biased, freeing Lula from prison and clearing the way for his presidential run.
Just ahead of the election, Lula made a plea for support, saying a small number of votes could mean the difference between an outright victory and a runoff.
Bolsonaro outperformed in Brazil’s southeast region, which includes highly 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,” he said. “It leaves a bitter taste for the left, if we consider what the polls were showing.”
Bolsonaro and allies have repeatedly cast doubt on the reliability of pollsters like Datafolha, and pointed instead to his street rallies with great turnouts. Supporters like retired engineer Ramon Almeida agreed.
“I don’t believe these polls by the Datafolha group. I believe the ‘Data-people’ poll I see everywhere Bolsonaro goes,” Almeida, 72, said Sunday after casting his vote at a school in Sao Paulo’s upmarket Pinheiros neighborhood. “I think there’s going to be a runoff in the end.”
Credit: Los Angeles Times