Divided Brazil barrels towards uncertain presidential run-off

A deeply polarised Brazil stood at a political crossroads Monday as the bruising first round of the presidential election left voters with a stark choice in the run-off between far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro and leftist Fernando Haddad.

Bolsonaro, an ultraconservative former paratrooper, easily beat a dozen other candidates on Sunday — but not by enough to avoid an October 28 showdown with Haddad, the former mayor of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro won 46% of the vote to Haddad’s 29%, according to official results.

That tracked closely with pollster’s predictions, but Bolsonaro charged that “polling problems” had cheated him of outright victory in the first round, which required him to pass the 50% threshold.

Some of his supporters protested outside the national electoral tribunal in the capital Brasilia, chanting “Fraud!”

That anger reflected the uncertain outlook for the second round.

Surveys suggest Bolsonaro will have the edge, but that Haddad will draw nearly even with him after picking up substantial support from the defeated candidates.

“We expected to win in the first round,” one Bolsonaro voter, 77-year-old retiree Lourdes Azevedo, said bitterly in Rio de Janeiro.

“Now things are more difficult: the second round is a risk.”

READ MORE: Brazil flirts with a neo-fascist

‘Golden opportunity’

Haddad, addressing his own supporters, called the looming run-off “a golden opportunity,” and challenged Bolsonaro to a debate.


He replaced popular former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the race after Lula, imprisoned for corruption, was disqualified.

Despite his complaints, Bolsonaro did not formally contest Sunday’s result, saying his voters “remain mobilised” for the second round.

But he faces fierce resistance going forward from a big part of Brazil’s 147-million-strong electorate put off by his record of denigrating comments against women, gays and the poor.

His unabashed nostalgia for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985 has also sent a chill through many voters.

Haddad, though, has his own burden.

As the Workers’ Party candidate, he faces the palpable disappointment and anger of voters who blame the party for Brazil’s worst-ever recession, and for a long string of graft scandals.

Sunday’s general election — in which new federal and state legislatures were also chosen — exposed the deep divisions generated by both candidates.

Some voters — particularly women — carried “Not Him” placards to polling stations in opposition to Bolsonaro.

But his supporters, like 53-year-old lawyer Roseli Milhomem in Brasilia, said they backed the veteran lawmaker because “Brazil wants change.”

“We’ve had enough of corruption. Our country is wealthy — it can’t fall into the wrong hands,” she said.

Bolsonaro favoured

Political analyst Fernando Meireles of Minas Gerais Federal University said momentum appeared to favour Bolsonaro.

“The probability of Bolsonaro coming out victorious seems pretty big right now,” Meireles told the media.

“It looks difficult for Haddad to win in the second round, but not impossible.”

Better-off Brazilians have rallied to Bolsonaro’s pledge to crush crime in a country where there are more than 62,000 murders each year, nearly as many rapes, and frequent muggings and robberies.

Bolsonaro wants to boost police forces and relax gun laws for “good” citizens.

Many voters also like his promises to tackle corruption and to cut climbing public debt through privatisations, as well as the devout Catholic’s family-first stance.

But poorer Brazilians, who benefited the most from the heyday during Lula’s time in office from 2003 to 2010, want a return to good times and hope Haddad can deliver.

The result is a very split electorate. Whoever ultimately wins the presidency in the world’s eighth largest economy will grapple with a large bloc of ideological hostility.

Despite sitting in congress for nearly three decades, Bolsonaro casts himself as a political outsider in the mold of America’s Donald Trump or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte: tough-talking, brash, and promising a root-and-branch overhaul to an electorate weary of traditional parties spouting empty promises.

© Agence France-Presse

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Marc Burleigh
Marc Burleigh
AFP journalist - Based in Paris. Previously: Central America, Tehran, São Paulo, London, Sydney.
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