Brazilians began a tense wait for results of their down-to-the-wire presidential runoff election after voting closed in the divisive showdown between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) cried foul on Sunday over police roadblocks it alleged were aimed at suppressing votes in his strongholds, especially the impoverished northeast.
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With 80.9 percent of voting machines counted, Lula had 50.3 percent of the vote compared with 49.7 percent for Bolsonaro, the Superior Electoral Court reported on its website.
Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010, won the first round on October 2, but by a much smaller margin than expected by pollsters. Sunday’s race is considered wide open.
Bolsonaro was first in line to cast his vote at a military complex in Rio de Janeiro. He sported the green-and-yellow colours of the Brazilian flag that always feature at his rallies.
“I’m expecting our victory, for the good of Brazil,” he told reporters. “God willing, Brazil will be victorious today.”
Lula voted in Sao Bernardo do Campo, the southeastern city where he got his start as a union leader, wearing a white guayabera-style shirt and surrounded by white-clad allies.
He said he was “confident in the victory of democracy” and he would seek to “restore peace” in a divided nation if elected.
Sunday’s runoff election caps a dirty and divisive campaign that has left the nation of 215 million people deeply split between supporters of conservative ex-army captain Bolsonaro, those of charismatic ex-metalworker Lula – and many others more or less equally disgusted by both.
Lula, 77, narrowly won the first-round election on October 2, and enters the finale the slight favourite with 52 percent of voter support to 48 percent for Bolsonaro, according to a final poll from the Datafolha Institute.
However, Bolsonaro, 67, performed better than expected last time around, and the result this time is anyone’s guess.
With Bolsonaro stickers on her chest, Rio de Janeiro resident Ana Maria Vieira said she was certain to vote for the president, and would never countenance picking Lula.
“I saw what Lula and his criminal gang did to this country,” she said, as she arrived to vote in Rio’s Copacabana neighbourhood, adding she thought Bolsonaro’s handling of the economy had been “fantastic”.
At the same polling station, Antonia Cordeiro, 49, said she just voted for Lula.
Bolsonaro had only worried about the concerns of the rich, at least until the final days of the campaign when he rolled out poverty-busting measures to win votes, said Cordeiro.
“We can’t continue with Bolsonaro. He hasn’t worked.”
Candidates in Brazil who top the first round tend to win the runoff. But political scientist Rodrigo Prando said this campaign is so atypical that a Bolsonaro win could not be ruled out. The president secured endorsements from governors of the three most populous states and his allies scored big wins in congressional races.
“Politically, Bolsonaro is stronger than had been imagined,” said Prando, a professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo. “Mathematically, Lula is in front.”
Brazil’s election chief announced the lifting of traffic police roadblocks that had “delayed” voters after the blockages led to an outcry.
“A decision was taken to end these operations to avoid the delay of voters,” top electoral judge Alexandre de Moraes told a press conference.
Leaders of the PT shared numerous videos on social media of buses carrying voters stopped at the roadblocks, mainly in the electoral stronghold of Lula, who said “what is happening in the northeast is unacceptable”.
Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said heated debates were taking place among people lining up at one polling station.
Some supporters of Bolsonaro said the president should be elected as he is a defender of family and Christian values, said Yanakiew, while Lula’s voters insisted the former leader was the only one defending the poor.
“We are standing in an area which is traditionally composed by Lula voters as this is a big favela where people are poor and usually voting for Lula, but it’s interesting to see this division which shows how this is a very tight race where results are very undefined.”
The mood in Latin America’s largest country is divided after an extremely hard-fought election campaign.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly cast doubt on the electoral system and hinted he might not recognise the result if he loses. The election is also receiving international attention. As a huge carbon reservoir, the Amazon rainforest plays an important role in the fight against global climate change.
In addition, Brazil has enormous natural resources and a large agricultural economy, making it an important player in international trade.
Lula has appealed to Brazilians to elect him to help “rebuild and transform” the country after four years under Bolsonaro. He has pledged to support low-income citizens and reinstate environmental protection policies, especially in the Amazon, which has seen a surge in deforestation and increased attacks against Indigenous people in recent years.
Bolsonaro, whose mantra is “God, family, country”, has announced new support programmes for poor Brazilians while promoting economic development and promising to tackle crime and corruption. He also has stressed conservative values, including his opposition to legalised abortion and drugs while falsely warning that Lula’s return would lead to the persecution of churches.
“Lula’s campaign is about the past; that is its biggest strength and biggest weakness,” said Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.
“It is the memory of boom years of the 2000s that makes people want to vote for him. But his unwillingness or inability to articulate new ideas and bring in fresh faces has left him somewhat helpless as Bolsonaro closes the gap.”
Typically, support for Lula and his Workers’ Party has come from working-class Brazilians and rural areas. Bolsonaro has the backing of conservatives, evangelical Christians – a key voting bloc – and business interests.
Election watchers will be paying close attention to what happens in Minas Gerais, an inland state in Brazil’s southeast that is considered “a micro-sample of the Brazilian electorate”, Al Jazeera’s Latin America editor Lucia Newman reported this week.
“If this race is as tight as most predict, every single vote will count, especially here in Minas Gerais, where no Brazilian president has ever won without winning the state,” Newman said.