Sao Paulo/Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Polls have closed in what has been a bitterly polarised and turbulent election that has included an assassination attempt of one candidate, another leading the race from a jail cell, mass protests and endless waves of fake news.
The vote came amid a backdrop of high-profile corruption scandals, rising violence and recession; a far cry from Brazil‘s last elections in 2014 when the country had just hosted a successful World Cup, was removed from the United Nations hunger map and unemployment was at a record low.
Leading the opinion polls is Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former army captain whose disparaging comments about homosexuals, women and minorities disgust many voters but whose chauvinism, political incorrectness and tough on crime posture appeals to many others.
In 2017, there were nearly 64,000 murders in Brazil, the vast majority of which remain unsolved and public security is one of the major concerns going in to this election.
Outside a polling station in Copacabana, Rio de Janiero, Jose Wilson Sales Avila Filho said he was backing Bolsonaro because of his pledge to tackle Brazil’s security crisis.
“What he understands is that criminals are criminals and good people are good people, there’s no middle ground there and there should be no leniency for bad people,” said Filho, 37, a businessman at a factory that makes dairy products.
“He’s honest, he’s not corrupt and he values religion and good people,” he said of Bolsonaro, who has a large following among Brazil’s Evangelical Christian community and who enjoys support by powerful Evangelical leaders and politicians.
Bolsonaro is often described as a hybrid of United States President Donald Trump – of whom Bolsonaro has expressed his admiration – and Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte whose bloody war against drug dealers and addicts has left thousands dead. If elected, he pledges to give Brazil’s already deadly police more rights to kill suspected criminals.
Appearing on Brazil’s flagship Jornal Nacional news programme early in his campaign, Bolsonaro said that “criminals couldn’t be treated as humans” and that a policeman that: “Kill 10, 15 or 20 (criminals), with 10 or 30 shots each, has to be decorated [the officer] and not punished.”
He openly praises Brazil’s brutal 21 year military dictatorship and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and has an outspoken general as his running mate, Hamilton Mourao.
Mouraou hinted last year that he would be in favour of a military takeover of government if corrupt officials were not dealt with by Brazil’s courts.
Carlos Melo, a professor of political science at Sao Paulo’s business school Insper, said that much of Bolsonaro’s success in this election was down to strong anti-Worker’s Party sentiment that has always existed amongst Brazil conservatives but has been exacerbated in recent years as the party has been hit by high profile corruption scandals and as Brazil’s economy tanked.
“He manages to combine a discourse of repression of criminals with anti-Worker’s Party sentiment: in economic, cultural and political ethical terms,” said Melo.
Trailing in second place behind Bolsonaro is Fernando Haddad, the centre-left former mayor of Sao Paulo who stepped in to take over the Workers’ Party’s candidacy when the once wildly popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – who was leading the race – was barred from running by the electoral court because he is in jail serving a sentence for corruption.
“I think Haddad was a good mayor in Sao Paulo … and Lula was an excellent president, he is in jail unjustly and is a political prisoner, in my opinion,” Erida Barros, 38, a business administrator at a healthcare company said in Rio.
“I teach my kids to respect women love everyone around them and be respectful to people of other racial and social profiles, Bolsonaro is propagating the opposite, and he is against the minorities.”
Ciro Gomes, another centre-left candidate and former governor of the north-eastern state of Ceara, is currently third.
“I’m voting for Ciro because I’m against Bolsonaro and I’m also not 100 percent pro-PT. I don’t want PT in power again, and I think Ciro will be a good president as I believe in his proposals for education and development,” said 24-year-old Gabriel de Castro, who works at a tourism agency and is a student of International Defence and Strategic Management, in Rio.
“If you want a society where you can walk around and feel safe you have to change structural things like education. Putting more policeman and guns on the streets won’t work; you can’t fight violence with violence.”
In recent days, support for Gomes appeared to grow on social media with some suggesting he is the best candidate to defeat Bolsonaro in the second round, because of Bolsonaro and Haddad’s high levels of rejection. This support hasn’t been reflected in opinion polls, however.
“It’s an anti-election, which is bad, because it means it is not a project for the future,” said Melo, the professor.
Opinion polls released on Saturday night gave Bolsonaro a clear lead over Haddad but still less than the 50 percent needed for him to win in the first round.
According to DataFolha polling institute, Bolsonaro is projected to win 40 percent of the vote on Sunday, with Haddad poised to secure around 25 percent of support.
The Datafolha poll showed that 27 per cent of voters could still change their minds.
A second-round runoff between the pair looks likely and is scheduled for October 28th.
While a first-round victory for Bolsonaro is still considered unlikely, given his recent surging support – even following a series of high profile negative media coverage and mass street protests – most analysts are wary of ruling out the possibility in this volatile and unpredictable election.
“It’s unlikely but we definitely can’t rule out this possibility,” said Melo, the professor.
In September, Bolsonaro was stabbed by a mentally disturbed attacker while campaigning and spent three weeks in hospital, unable to campaign or attend TV debates. Analysts say this was likely positive for his campaign, because of his weak performance in the debates.
“The voter that doesn’t know much about him could end up voting for him for lack of knowledge,” said Melo.
On Thursday, he snubbed the final debate broadcast on Brazil’s TV Globo and appeared instead in a recorded interview on rival channel Rede Record – owned by billionaire Evangelical bishop Edir Macedo, who has endorsed Bolsonaro.
He was deeply criticised by rival candidates for fleeing the Globo debate, which traditionally marks a critical moment within Brazilian presidential election cycles as it is the last debate prior to first-round voting.
On Saturday night Bolsonaro broadcast a Facebook live in which he blasted socialism, communism and political correctness and reiterated his plans to open up Brazil’s Amazon to mining interests and loosen gun laws.
“Let’s liquidate the race in the first round!” he said, sat beside his eldest son Flavio who is now running for Senate.
Former footballer Ronaldinho took to Twitter in support and posted: “For a better Brazil, I want peace, security and someone who gives us back joy. I chose to live in Brazil, and I want a better Brazil for everyone!!!”
Muito obrigado, Ronaldinho! É uma honra! 🇧🇷 👍🏻 https://t.co/tyW8XAISKW
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) October 7, 2018
This morning, Bolsonaro cast his vote in a military school in Western Rio de Janeiro.
“On the 28th we’ll go to the beach!” he proclaimed, surrounded by security staff.
Brazil’s 147 million voters will also elect 27 governors, 54 senators, 513 lawmakers and more than 1,000 state legislators across Brazil’s states and federal district. The composition of national congress will be extremely important for the next president – whoever it is – to govern.
Congress wields considerable power and since 2016 has decided the fate of two presidents: to impeach Dilma Rousseff for a budget misdemeanour and to shield Michel Temer from corruption charges.
Carlos Melo, the professor, said that in such a polarised political climate, pulling together necessary alliances in congress would be more difficult than ever.
“It will not be easy for anyone,” he said.