Polls in Brazil closed on Sunday afternoon in a polarizing presidential runoff election that pits an incumbent vowing to safeguard conservative Christian values against a former president promising to return the country to a more prosperous past.
The runoff shaped up as a close contest between President Jair Bolsonaro and his political nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both are well-known, divisive political figures who stir passion as much as loathing.
The electoral authority had begun counting ballots and, because the vote is conducted electronically, the final result is usually available within hours after voting stations close.
The vote will determine if the world’s fourth-largest democracy stays the same course of far-right politics or returns a leftist to the top job — and, in the latter case, whether Bolsonaro will accept defeat. There were multiple reports of what critics said appeared attempts to suppress the turnout of likely da Silva voters.
Voting stations in the capital, Brasilia, were already crowded by morning and, at one of them, retired government worker Luiz Carlos Gomes said he would vote for da Silva.
“He’s the best for the poor, especially in the countryside,” said Gomes, 65, who hails from Maranhao state in the poor northeast region. “We were always starving before him.”
Because the vote is conducted electronically, the final result is usually available within hours after voting stations close in the late afternoon. Most opinion polls gave a lead to da Silva, universally known as Lula, though political analysts agreed the race grew increasingly tight in recent weeks.
For months, it appeared that da Silva was headed for easy victory as he kindled nostalgia for his 2003-2010 presidency, when Brazil’s economy was booming and welfare helped tens of millions join the middle class.
But while da Silva topped the Oct. 2 first-round elections with 48% of the vote, Bolsonaro was a strong second at 43%, showing opinion polls significantly underestimated his popularity. Many Brazilians support Bolsonaro’s defense of conservative social values and he has shored up support with vast government spending.
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.
More than 150 million Brazilians are eligible to vote, yet about 20% of the electorate abstained in the first round. Both da Silva and Bolsonaro have focused efforts on driving turnout. The electoral authority prohibited any federal highway police operations from affecting voters’ passage on public transport.
Still, there were multiple reports of checkpoints and traffic stops. Television network Globo reported more than 500 stops, half of which were in the northeast region, a Workers’ Party stronghold. The party filed a request for the arrest of the highway police’s director and demanded the region’s polls remain open later.
Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit, said in a statement it was “very concerned” about the reports.
Speaking to reporters in Brasilia, the electoral authority’s president Alexandre de Moraes said the police force’s director had provided clarification that no stop lasted over 15 minutes, turnout wasn’t affected and polls would close at 5 p.m. local time, as scheduled.
“(Stops) were made in accordance with traffic laws and that stalled some voters, but all arrived to their voting places. No bus returned to its point of origin,” said de Moraes, adding that all traffic stops have since been suspended.
“If there was an abuse of power, that is an electoral crime. And we will look into that,” de Moraes said.
Gleisi Hoffmann, who leads the Workers’ Party, told reporters in Sao Paulo she doesn’t believe all voters stalled indeed cast their ballots, but also said her party doesn’t have an estimate as to how many people may have been deterred.
“We can’t think these voters arrived just because the highway police said so,” Hoffmann said in a press conference. “The head of the highway police is a militant of the Bolsonaro campaign.”
Bolsonaro was first in line to cast his vote at a military complex in Rio de Janeiro. He sported the green and yellow colors of the Brazilian flag that always feature at his rallies.
“I’m expecting our victory, for the good of Brazil,” he told reporters afterward. “God willing, we will be victorious this afternoon. Actually, Brazil will be victorious.”
Da Silva voted Sunday morning in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a city outside Sao Paulo, where he lived for decades and started his political career as a union leader. He wore white, as he often has during the campaign, rather than his party’s traditional red.
“Today we are choosing the kind of Brazil we want, how we want our society to organize. People will decide what kind of life they want,” da Silva told reporters. “That’s why this is the most important day of my life. I am convinced that Brazilians will vote for a plan under which democracy wins.”
The candidates presented few proposals for the country’s future beyond affirming they will continue a big welfare program for the poor, despite very limited fiscal room going forward. They railed against one another and launched online smear campaigns — with considerably more attacks coming from Bolsonaro’s camp.
On the eve of the election, Bolsonaro shared a video on Twitter of former U.S. President Donald Trump endorsing him, saying that he has secured Brazil’s universal respect on the world stage. Da Silva has specifically criticized Bolsonaro for the nation’s fallen stature abroad, highlighting the dearth of state visits and bilateral meetings.
“Don’t lose him, don’t let that happen,” Trump said in the video. “It would not be good for your country. I love your country, but it would not be good. So get out and vote for President Bolsonaro. He’s doing the job like few people could.”
His four years in office have been marked by proclaimed conservatism and defense of traditional Christian values. He claimed that his rival’s return to power would usher in communism, legalized drugs, abortion and the persecution of churches — things that didn’t happen during da Silva’s earlier eight years in office.
On Sunday, Livia Correia and her husband, Pedro, brought her two young kids to a voting station in Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood, where Bolsonaro supporters regularly rally. They all wore green-and-yellow shirts. Livia, 36, said she voted for Bolsonaro because he defends the things she holds dear: “family values, God and freedom of expression.”
Da Silva has homed in on Bolsonaro’s widely criticized handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and said the president failed to care for society’s neediest members. And he painted Bolsonaro as an opponent of the Amazon rainforest, given that he defanged environmental authorities and presided over a surge in deforestation.
But for many, the record of da Silva’s Workers’ Party is equally off-putting. A sprawling investigation revealed the party’s involvement in vast corruption scandals that ensnared top politicians and executives.
Da Silva himself was imprisoned for 19 months for corruption and money laundering. The Supreme Court annulled his convictions in 2019, on the grounds that the judge was biased and colluded with prosecutors. That did not stop Bolsonaro from reminding voters of the convictions.
The president’s tremendous digital mobilization was on display in recent days as his campaign introduced fresh — and unproven — claims of possible electoral manipulation. That revived fears that Bolsonaro could challenge election results should he lose — much like Trump, whom he admires.
For months, he claimed that the nation’s electronic voting machines are prone to fraud, though he never presented evidence, even after the electoral authority set a deadline for him to do so.
More recently, allegations focused on airtime for political ads. Bolsonaro’s campaign claimed that radio stations may have hurt their candidate by failing to air more than 150,000 electoral spots.
“If da Silva wins, we’re going to have a problem,” said Pedro Correia, 40, who joined his wife and two children in Copacabana.
“It’s impossible that he wins,” he said.