RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s top two presidential candidates will face each other in a runoff vote following a polarized election to decide if the country returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-largest democracy or keeps the far-right incumbent in office for another four years.
With 98% of the votes tallied in Sunday’s election, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva had 48% support and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro had 43.6% support. Brazil’s election authority said the result made a second-round vote between the two candidates a mathematical certainty.
Nine other candidates were also competing, but their support pales compared with that for Bolsonaro and da Silva.
The tightness of the election resulted came as a surprise, since pre-election polls had given da Silva a commanding lead. The last Datafolha survey published Saturday found a 50% to 36% advantage for da Silva among those who intended to vote. It interviewed 12,800 people, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
“This tight difference between Lula and Bolsonaro wasn’t predicted,” said Nara Pavão, who teaches political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco.
Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said: “It is too soon to go too deep, but this election shows Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was not a hiccup.”
Bolsonaro outperformed in Brazil’s southeast region, which includes 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,” Cortez said.
Bolsonaro’s administration has been marked by incendiary speech, his testing of democratic institutions, his widely criticized handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the worst deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years.
But he has built a devoted base by defending conservative values, rebuffing political correctness and presenting himself as protecting the nation from leftist policies that he says infringes on personal liberties and produces economic turmoil.
While voting earlier Sunday, Marley Melo, a 53-year-old trader in capital Brasilia, sported the yellow of the Brazilian flag, which Bolsonaro and his supporters have embraced for demonstrations. Melo said he is once again voting for Bolsonaro, who met his expectations of him, and he does not believe the surveys that show him trailing.
“Polls can be manipulated. They all belong to companies with interests,” he said.
A slow economic recovery has yet to reach the poor, with 33 million Brazilians going hungry despite higher welfare payments. Like several of its Latin American neighbors coping with high inflation and a vast number of people excluded from formal employment, Brazil is considering a shift to the political left.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the reliability not just of opinion polls, but also of Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Analysts fear he has laid the groundwork to reject results.
At one point, Bolsonaro claimed to possess evidence of fraud, but never presented any, even after the electoral authority set a deadline to do so. He said as recently as Sept. 18 that if he doesn’t win in the first round, something must be “abnormal.”
Da Silva, 76, was once a metalworker who rose from poverty to the presidency and is credited with building an extensive social welfare program during his 2003-2010 tenure that helped lift tens of millions into the middle class.
But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in vast corruption scandals that entangled politicians and business executives.
Da Silva’s own convictions for corruption and money laundering led to 19 months’ imprisonment, sidelining him from the 2018 presidential race that polls indicated he had been leading against Bolsonaro. The Supreme Court later annulled da Silva’s convictions on grounds that the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors.
Social worker Nadja Oliveira, 59, said she voted for da Silva and even attended his rallies, but since 2018 she has voted for Bolsonaro.
“Unfortunately the Workers’ Party disappointed us. It promised to be different,” she said in Brasilia.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism