Voting in Brazil begins as Bolsonaro on the right faces a major defeat

SAO PAULO — Standing on the back of a small pickup truck, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva danced and waved his way through a massive crowd of supporters who had gathered for a parade through the center of Brazil’s largest city the day before the country’s presidential election.

Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday in the first round of elections in a contest that has been marred by outbreaks of political violence and fears that far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has spent two years trying to undermine the election, will contest the results and refuse to to leave power.

But da Silva, a leftist who served as president from 2003 to 2010 and has a significant lead over Bolsonaro in pre-election polls, ended this phase of the campaign in a jubilant mood seemingly aimed at convincing his supporters, his country and the world that the planet’s fourth-largest democracy would survive, regardless of what ultimate threat Bolsonaro might pose to it.

“I’m not afraid,” da Silva, 76, told reporters during a Saturday afternoon news conference. “If the people elect me, there will be an inauguration and everything else I have promised.”

Da Silva, a former trade unionist who became an icon of the Brazilian and global left during his presidency, has led Bolsonaro in almost every poll conducted over the past year. His optimism received another boost on Saturday when final pre-election surveys from Brazil’s two biggest pollsters showed him leading Bolsonaro 51% to 37% and 50% to 36%, with other candidates lagging far behind.

That put da Silva within reach of a resounding victory in Sunday’s first round: If he wins an outright majority of the vote, he would end the election without the need for a runoff against Bolsonaro on October 23.

It would mark a triumphant return for Brazil’s first working-class president, who during his tenure oversaw an economic boom that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and positioned Brazil as a rising global superpower. He left office with an approval rating of over 80% and the title of “the most popular politician in the world” bestowed upon him by US President Barack Obama.

His legacy seemed forever tarnished by a corruption conviction that sent him to prison in 2017. Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy collapsed under da Silva’s chosen successor, President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016.

But da Silva’s conviction was overturned in 2019 after The Intercept Brazil uncovered judicial and prosecutorial misconduct that bolstered da Silva’s argument that the investigation had been a politically motivated witch hunt against him and the left-wing Workers’ Party all along.

That paved the way for a confrontation with Bolsonaro, a right-wing authoritarian who had made defeating da Silva’s Workers’ Party and many of its favored policies, especially those that benefited poor and marginalized populations, his main political goal.

For the past two years, Bolsonaro has sought to cast doubt on the election, apparently convinced that his only path to victory over da Silva was to undermine faith in the contest and the election itself. He has spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud, waged an all-out battle with Brazil’s electoral institutions and vowed to “go to war” if he loses. He has said he will only accept the results if he believes the election is “clean and transparent.”

The threats by a former army captain with close ties to the Brazilian military have sparked widespread concern about a potential coup attempt, although most experts consider it unlikely. Others have expressed fears of a Brazilian version of the uprising on January 6, 2021 at the US capital, an event Bolsonaro – a close ally of former US President Donald Trump – and his allies have studied closely.

The combination of Bolsonaro’s conspiracies and his painting of the race as a battle between “good versus evil” has contributed to a violent election atmosphere, where several da Silva supporters have been attacked and killed by Bolsonaro supporters. Da Silva has canceled events due to security concerns and increased his own protection. Polls, meanwhile, have shown that as many as a third of Brazilians are afraid to discuss their vote, a figure that rises among supporters of da Silva’s Workers’ Party.

Voting is mandatory in Brazil, but there are concerns among some on da Silva’s side that fear of violence or political turbulence could keep some of his supporters away from the polls on Sunday. In recent weeks, da Silva has also tried to secure voter turnout among Brazil’s poorest residents and to turn the votes of the roughly 15% of voters who polls show still favor other candidates in the race.

His public parade on Saturday, in which there was little visible security presence around him, appeared to be aimed at addressing concerns about violence and convincing his supporters to end Bolsonaro’s presidency at the first available opportunity.

A victory in the first round, many experts believe, could blunt any attempt by Bolsonaro to contest the results. Da Silva, meanwhile, argued that a definitive defeat of another far-right leader who has put democracy in his crosshairs would send a message to a global community that has largely rejected and isolated Bolsonaro thanks to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and democratic erosion that has occurred on his watch.

“Brazil will enter a moment of great peace, Brazil will return to a moment of great democracy, Brazil will return to a moment of extremely active and proud international relations,” da Silva said. “The message I can tell the world is that Brazil will wake up … with a more beautiful face. … Brazil has its heart and arms open to welcome the world again.”

Da Silva cast his vote shortly before noon. 9 in São Paulo, less than an hour after the polls opened. Bolsonaro voted in his home state of Rio de Janeiro and will spend the day in Brasilia, the country’s capital.

Polls close at 4:00 p.m. ET, and results are expected within hours thanks to an all-electronic voting system widely considered one of the world’s most efficient and secure.

Top US and EU officials have expressed confidence in Brazil’s electoral system amid Bolsonaro’s threats in an attempt to help prevent a dispute. The US Senate this week approved a resolution calling on the Biden administration to “review and reconsider its relationship with any government that comes to power in Brazil through undemocratic means.” EU lawmakers threatened trade sanctions against Brazil if Bolsonaro tries to stay in power despite losing the election.

Despite da Silva’s optimism, it doesn’t look like Bolsonaro will simply accept defeat, whether it comes on Sunday or in a round three weeks from now. He and his supporters have questioned the legitimacy of the polls, arguing over the weekend that Bolsonaro, not da Silva, is on the verge of a first-round victory.

As many as a quarter of Bolsonaro’s voters does not want him to accept defeat, polls show, and many Brazilian observers consider it unlikely that he would do so after a campaign that has spent challenging the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system.

If the race goes to a second round, it would “give Bolsonaro an extra month to create as much unrest as he can,” said Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian political expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

However, Da Silva vowed to celebrate the results of Sunday’s election, even though he lacks a first-round victory, especially as polls show his lead over Bolsonaro would only widen in a head-to-head matchup.

“We’re going to party because we deserve it,” he said Saturday. “To be reborn from the ashes is a cause for celebration.”

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