Polls opened at 8am (11:00 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 5pm (20:00 GMT), with results expected four hours later.
Former army captain Jair Bolsonaro looks set for a comfortable win over his centre-left rival Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party, with latest opinion poll on Saturday night by polling agency Datafolha giving him a lead of 55 percent of intended votes to Haddad’s 45 percent.
The 63-year-old – who openly praises Brazil’s military dictatorship, has defended torture and extrajudicial police killings – looks set to join a rising global trend of authoritarian populists.
“What is at stake is not democracy. What is at stake is the perpetuation of this rotten machine that we have there that lives off corruption, that takes away your medical care, education, security,” Bolsonaro said via a Facebook live protest on Saturday night.
On Sunday morning, wearing a bullet-proof vest and flanked by security guards, he cast his vote at a municipal school in Rio de Janeiro’s Western Zone accompanied by his wife Michelle.
Bolsonaro’s outspoken political incorrectness draws comparisons with US President Donald Trump, while his hardline law and order stance recalls Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war against drugs has left thousands dead.
“You have a real risk of authoritarian tendencies,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.
“It really depends on what extent the judiciary and legislature are able and willing to push back. This is something to watch,” he said.
Bolsonaro has pledged to loosen gun laws and give police greater rights to kill suspects in a bid to tackle violent crime, policies that have resonated with many voters in a country that saw nearly 64,000 homicides last year.
“I hope that he gives the police more power to combat crime,” said Diego Piereri, 34, the owner of a mechanics garage, who said that he and his wife were kidnapped before and said he was voting Bolsonaro because of his security proposals.
“I’m against violence, I don’t want people taking the law into their own hands, but criminals have to know they’ll suffer the consequences if they mess with upstanding citizens.”
Bolsonaro has pledged to give Brazil’s police greater rights to kill suspects. Last year, across Brazil, police were responsible for more than 5000 killings.
A seven-term elected congressman, Bolsonaro has successively cast himself as a political outsider free from the corrupt establishment of capital, Brasilia.
Earlier this week, Trump’s former chief strategist and global conservative activist Steve Bannon described Bolsonaro as “brilliant” in an interview with BBC Brasil.
For his part, Haddad cast his vote on Sunday morning in a school in Sao Paulo where he was mayor from 2012 – 2016, accompanied by his wife Ana Estela.
“Haddad expanded university places for young people in Brazil through his ProUni programme,” said Paula Masulk, 23, a law student, adding that “this is the way to combat violence and criminality”.
“Bolsonaro is opposed to democracy and human rights.”
It’s been a bitter election replete with drama, including a near fatal failed assassination attempt against Bolsonaro, a reported fake news network sponsored by financial backers and scores of reports of electoral violence committed by alleged supporters.
On Saturday evening, Brazil’s former Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot weighed into the debate on Twitter:”I cannot allow a cheap discourse of intolerance. By exclusion I vote Haddad,” he posted.
Já fui chamado de petista e antipetista. Já fui psdebista e anti tbem. Houve muita especulação sobre meu interesse eleitoreiro na minha atuação profissional. Nada se comprovou. Agora, não posso deixar passar barato discurso de intolerância e etc. Por exclusão, voto em Hadad.
— Rodrigo Janot (@Rodrigo_Janot) October 27, 2018
Also on Saturday evening, 23-year-old Charlione Lessa Albuquerque was shot and killed while taking part in a pro-Haddad event in the north-eastern capital of Fortaleza.
Police are investigating allegations that the shots were fired by a man who declared himself a Bolsonaro supporter, the UOL news site reported.
“This Sunday, I count on your vow to regain the breath of democracy, to ward off the ghosts of dictatorship, of hatred and of violence,” Haddad tweeted.
Haddad’s Workers’ Party won Brazil’s past four elections. One of its founders, the popular former president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, led opinion polls for the presidential race until he was barred from running following his conviction and imprisonment in a corruption case.
While almost certainly poised for victory, many questions remain on how Bolsonaro would rule Brazil, where a powerful congress, that has decided the fate of two presidents since 2016, has traditionally been governed via pragmatic opportunism rather than ideology.
“The main obstacle for Bolsonaro’s government will be achieving and maintaining governability,” said Lucas de Aragao, a political scientist and risk analyst at Arko Advice, a Brasilia-based consultancy.
“While tossing out the rulebook with the electorate might work, tossing out the rulebook with congress might not.”