Brazilians went to the polls on Sunday to decide between two polarising politicians with dramatically different visions for Latin America’s most populous nation.
Following a drawn-out and acrimonious campaign, a tight result is expected from the run-off vote between rightwing populist Jair Bolsonaro, the current president, and leftist former leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in what is a defining moment for the political course of the country.
An ex-army captain who has praised Brazil’s past military dictatorship, Bolsonaro is cast by his supporters as a freedom fighter and defender of traditional values protecting the country of 215mn against a slide into godless socialism.
“The expectation is for victory today, for the good of Brazil. By God’s will, we will be victorious tonight. Or better, Brazil will be victorious,” said the president after voting in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday morning.
Lula, who governed for two terms between 2003 and 2010, has assembled a broad coalition including centrist politicians. His backers argue that Bolsonaro poses a threat to democracy.
“Today is possibly the most important October 30th of my life and I think it is a very important day for the Brazilian people. Today the people are defining the model of Brazil they want, the model of life they want,” said Lula after voting in São Bernardo do Campo, an industrial city on the outskirts of São Paulo.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly claimed without evidence that Brazil’s electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud, stirring concerns he is preparing a justification to reject defeat and take the contest to what has been described as a “third round”.
When asked if he trusted an inconclusive first round vote on October 2, Bolsonaro initially said he would await a report from the armed forces — which is yet to be released.
However, the rightwinger on Friday evening insisted he would respect the outcome. “There’s not the slightest doubt. Whoever has the most votes wins. That’s what democracy is,” he said.
The declaration came after a final televised debate that was ill-tempered and light on policy details, with each candidate accusing the other of lies and being in favour of abortion.
Ahead of Sunday’s ballot, tensions were running high. A spate of violent incidents has marred the campaign, while local media has reported on arguments in apartment blocks over whether residents can display political banners.
On Saturday, Carla Zambelli, a prominent lawmaker and close Bolsonaro ally, brandished a fire arm after a verbal dispute with a citizen in an upmarket neighbourhood of São Paulo. The incident occurred just a week after Roberto Jefferson, another Bolsonaro ally, fired shots at federal police who were attempting to uphold a warrant for his arrest.
“This election means a lot to the country,” said Marina Daher, a 38-year-old doctor who was buying Brazil flags after voting for Bolsonaro.
“It is to prevent Brazil from going down the drain, to prevent the election of a thief,” she said, referring to the corruption controversies that occurred during consecutive administrations of Lula’s Workers’ party, or PT.
“For me Lula represents hope,” said Daniel Gonçalves, a 44-year-old teacher. “Democratic hope, the hope of greater concern towards social problems and minorities, of the country being more open to dialogue with the outside world, more plural in every way.”
He reckoned Lula would win by a slender margin, but added: “Bolsonaro will contest the result. He will follow Donald Trump’s playbook.”
The election is Brazil’s most important since the end of military rule in 1985, said Graziella Testa, a political scientist and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.
“There’s a lot at stake,” she added. “It will be a measure of the popularity of far-right populism in Brazil.”
Bolsonaro promotes free enterprise, agribusiness, gun ownership and conservative Christian ideals, while reminding voters of graft scandals and mismanagement of the economy during the PT’s 14-year rule.
The leftwing challenger has pledged to end hunger, restore Brazil’s international prestige and place the state at the centre of economic development. Lula also intends to tackle destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which has surged since Bolsonaro assumed office nearly four years ago.
Victory would represent a remarkable comeback for the veteran politician, who served nearly two years in prison on graft convictions that were annulled last year.
The former metalworker and union leader came out on top in the first round with 48.4 per cent of votes, short of the absolute majority required for an outright win.
Bolsonaro went into the four-week period before the tiebreaker ballot on the front foot, after achieving a 43.2 per cent share that defied the expectations of most pollsters, but his momentum appeared to stall in the final straight following the Jefferson incident.
Although many opinion surveys give Lula a narrow advantage ahead of Sunday’s vote, there is scepticism about the polls’ accuracy after they previously underestimated support for Bolsonaro.
The campaign was initially dominated by living standards and the economy, with the rightwinger pointing to job creation, falling inflation and increased social benefit payments.
Lula touts the poverty reduction and growth rates achieved during his time in office, before a deep recession under his chosen successor Dilma Rousseff. However, in Brazil’s influential financial sector there is unease about the leftwinger’s statist rhetoric on the economy.
The focus has since shifted to morality and religion. Each side has at times resorted to dirty tricks, with lurid insinuations of paedophilia, devil worship and cannibalism.
While the country’s top electoral court has clamped down on a tide of misinformation from both camps, Bolsonaro has accused it of bias, adding to worries he might challenge an unfavourable result.
Adriano Laureno of political consultancy Prospectiva said: “The objective is to secure enough popular and military support to cast doubt on the electoral process and question the results of the elections.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza