Lula leads polls as Brazil votes in tense presidential contest By Reuters

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© Reuters. Brazil’s former president and current presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva speaks during a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, October 1, 2022. REUTERS/Carla Carniel

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By Anthony Boadle, Lysandra Paraguassu and Rodrigo Beam Gaier

BRASILIA (Reuters) – Brazilians cast their ballots on Sunday in the first round of their country’s most polarized election in decades, with leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva expected to beat right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro.

Most polls have shown Lula with a solid lead for months, but Bolsonaro has signaled he may refuse to accept defeat, raising fears of an institutional crisis or post-election violence. A message projected onto Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue ahead of the vote read: “Peace in the election.”

Most surveys favor Lula, who was president from 2003 to 2010, by 10-15 percentage points. If he wins more than 50% of the valid vote, which several pollsters show is within reach, it would clinch an outright victory, barring a second round of voting.

Adorned with Lula stickers, Adriana Schneider voted at a primary school in Rio de Janeiro. The university professor, 48, said Bolsonaro’s administration had been “disastrous” for investment in culture, art, science and education.

“We live under a barbaric government,” she said.

Lula was jailed during the last election and served a sentence for graft that was later overturned by the Supreme Court, allowing him to face fierce rival Bolsonaro this year.

Voting in São Bernardo do Campo, Lula acknowledged the dramatic turnaround in his fortunes following a verdict he says was politically motivated.

“It’s an important day for me,” he said. “Four years ago I couldn’t vote because I was the victim of a lie … I want to try to help my country return to normal.”

Bolsonaro voted in Rio and said he expected to win the election in Sunday’s first round despite his poor results in surveys. The former Army captain doesn’t trust the pollsters, saying their results don’t match the support he sees at his campaign events.

“If we have clean elections, we will win today with at least 60% of the vote,” Bolsonaro said in a video posted on his social media before voting. “All the evidence we have is favorable to us. The other side has not been able to take to the streets, has not campaigned, has no acceptance, no credibility.”

A winner could be announced within hours of the polls closing at 6 p.m. 17:00 Brasilia time (2000 GMT). If no candidate wins more than half of the votes, excluding blank and spoiled ballots, the top two candidates go to a runoff on October 30, extending the tense campaign season.

Bolsonaro has threatened to challenge the outcome of the vote, after making baseless allegations of fraud, accusing election officials of plotting against him and suggesting that the military conduct a parallel count, which they refused to do.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who currently heads the Federal Electoral Tribunal, said he expected a peaceful day with “calm” results. Moraes – who has been one of Bolsonaro’s main enemies, leading investigations into him and his allies – tweeted that the electoral court “continues to work so that we all have a peaceful and calm Sunday.”

BOLSONARO’S COALITION AHEAD IN LEGISLATION

A decisive victory for Lula on Sunday could reduce the odds of a tumultuous transition. Critics of Bolsonaro say another month of his attacks on the democratic process could spur social unrest like the 2021 attack on the US capital by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro says he will respect the election result if the vote is “clean and transparent”, without defining any criteria.

Brazilians also vote on Sunday for all 513 members of the lower house of Congress, a third of the 81 members of the Senate and state governors and legislatures.

Although Lula is leading the presidential race, the conservative coalition supporting Bolsonaro is expected to have a majority in both houses of Congress. That could present challenges for the left to govern a country with rising hunger, high unemployment and an uneven recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lula and Bolsonaro have both promised more generous welfare spending next year, increasing pressure on the federal budget and prompting both to look at alternatives to current spending rules.

The newly established autonomy of Brazil’s central bank and Lula’s choice of a centrist former rival as running mate have reassured some investors that he would not trigger a disruptive break in economic policy.

Lula has vowed to make a sharp departure from Bolsonaro’s environmental policies after deforestation in the Amazon (NASDAQ: ) rainforest reached its highest level in 15 years. Lula has promised to fight deforestation, increase protection of the biome and local tribes and make Brazil a protagonist in climate diplomacy.

As in previous elections, Brazil’s military has been mobilized to increase security at some 477,000 polling stations using electronic voting machines that allow for the rapid tabulation of results by the National Electoral Authority (TSE).

Following Bolsonaro’s criticism of Brazil’s voting systems, the TSE invited a record number of foreign election observers, including first-time missions by US observers at the Carter Center and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

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