Lula frontrunner as Brazil votes in bitter presidential election

Brazilians on Sunday began voting for a new president after a long and bitter campaign, with polls showing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with a more than 10 percentage point advantage over incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

The campaign has at times been marred by violence, including the murder of three supporters of Lula’s leftwing Workers’ party and one backer of the rightwing Bolsonaro.

“For me, this election is about the hope for change,” said Valéria Conte Deldem, a 48-year-old from São Paulo who voted for Lula. “We had four years of horror, humiliation, the loss of rights for indigenous peoples and the burning of the [Amazon] forest. For me, it’s the hope of having a government that thinks about the working class.”

“I would like it to end in the first round, but I am aware that there is a possibility of a second round.”

Two opinion polls released on Saturday night suggested the former president would receive 50 to 51 per cent of valid votes, versus 36 to 37 per cent for Bolsonaro.

If no candidate today receives more than 50 per cent of valid votes — those excluding blank and spoilt votes — the race will go to a runoff at the end of October.

Polls indicate the third and fourth-placed candidates — leftwinger Ciro Gomes and centrist Simone Tebet — only have about 10 per cent support between them.

“There is a chance that Lula will win in the first round. It is a viable scenario. Lula entered the final stretch of the campaign with a level of votes historically above that of candidates in first place,” said Rafael Cortez, an analyst at consultancy Tendências.

“What will determine things is the voter turnout rate. Lower-income individuals tend to go to the polls less but Lula tends to have more support among this part of the electorate.”

Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters in Pocos de Caldas, Minas Gerais state, Brazil on Friday © /Washington Alves/Reuters

Many Brazilians are voting for who they dislike least. Lula, who was president between 2003 and 2010 and left office with an approval rating above 80 per cent, has a rejection rate of about 40 per cent.

In the eyes of conservative voters, his involvement in the Lava Jato corruption scandal makes him unfit for the presidency. The former labour organiser served almost two years in prison for graft before his convictions were annulled by the Supreme Court. Other criminal cases were shelved or expired because of time limits.

Fabricio Farias arrived at the polls with his wife, both clad in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag.

“This election will define the future of our country for the next 10 years. I want Bolsonaro to be re-elected because he defends God, country and family,” he said, adding he was confident the incumbent leader would win in the first round.

“It is easy to manipulate polling numbers for the masses. I prefer to follow my intuition and the data from the people. And the Bolsonaro rallies this year were large and cohesive.”

Yet Bolsonaro is scorned by much of the population and suffers from a rejection rate above 50 per cent. His at times authoritarian rhetoric and misogynistic language have irked many Brazilians. His government has also been involved in multiple controversies, notably its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which killed almost 700,000 Brazilians.

Beyond this, the president has unnerved voters by refusing to say whether he would unconditionally accept the result of the election.

The former army captain has repeatedly questioned the integrity of the country’s electronic voting machines, claiming they are vulnerable to fraud without providing evidence. During the week, his Liberal party released a note claiming it had found security issues with the technology — allegations rejected by the country’s electoral court.

Critics fear Bolsonaro is trying to create a pretext to reject defeat. Opposition figures and political analysts are bracing for the possibility that Bolsonaro’s more radical base could take to the streets in protest if Lula wins.

“I expect we will have a second-round runoff and that Bolsonaro will use whatever it takes to keep himself in power, including contesting the results and trying a January 6 kind of riot,” said Thomas Traumann, a political analyst, referring to the attack on the US Capitol last year by supporters of Donald Trump, the defeated former president.

On Sunday morning there was a large police presence on the main avenues of São Paulo, but the city remained calm.

The presidential vote coincides with congressional and gubernatorial races. In addition to electing governors for the 27 states, Brazilians will vote for candidates for all 513 seats in the lower house of Congress and one-third of Senate seats.

Political analysts expect the left to make gains, but that Congress will continue to be dominated by centre and centre-right parties.

In particular, the Centrão, a loose bloc of lawmakers known for trading political support for budgetary resources to plough into their home constituencies, is expected to win big.

“For the most part, the Centrão will prevail. This is because they have such an unbelievable presence all over the country,” said Mario Marconini, managing director at Teneo. “But the Centrão will just attach itself to whoever has the power.”

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