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Lula and Bolsonaro to go head-to-head in Brazil presidential election

The leftist leader, who was president from 2003 to 2010, won the first round ahead of the far-right incumbent but took less than 50% of the vote.

(CN) — Brazilians will go to the polls again at the end of the month for a runoff presidential election after leftist candidate Lula da Silva won 48.4% of the vote and far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro took 43.2% over the weekend.

The first-round results were much closer than opinion polls and political analysts had predicted, which had put former President Lula of the Workers’ Party as the clear winner. Falling short of the 50% threshold needed for an outright victory, Lula and Bolsonaro will face off again Oct. 30. 

The election map of Brazil, with states won by Lula in red and states won by Bolsonaro in blue. (Globo via Courthouse News)

“Tomorrow we will be on the streets to win the elections,” an emphatic Lula told his supporters. “We are going to work hard, and here in Sao Paulo we are going to choose Fernando Haddad [for governor] and we are going to travel the states of Brazil.”

Brazil is the largest democracy in the Americas after the United States and the fourth largest in the world, with an electorate of 156 million. Although voting is compulsory in Brazil, turnout for the first round was 78.8%, with around 30 million people not voting.

In a night of mixed feelings for the left, Bolsonaro performed better than expected, taking votes off other candidates such as the center-right Simone Tebet. This added to his broad base of support among evangelicals, who make up around one-third of the population.

Speaking to the media in the capital of Brasilia, Bolsonaro directed attention towards the poorer, working-class voters — the base of support for Lula. “I understand there were a lot of votes because of the conditions of the Brazilian people, who feel prices increases, especially basic products,” Bolsonaro said. “I understand that a lot of people desire change but some changes can be for the worst.”

He added: “We tried to show this other side in the campaign, but it seems like it didn’t register with the most important layers of society.”

Throughout the election campaign, Bolsonaro had refused to confirm whether he would accept the result if he lost, having regularly criticized the electoral process and echoed unsubstantiated allegations that the country’s electronic voting system is open to fraud.

The political geography of Brazil consists of three main areas — the poorer northeast region that has voted for Lula since 2002, the agricultural south and central east region that has voted against Workers’ Party candidates since 2006, and the rich and populous southeast region that’s home to Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the latter two being key swing states much like Ohio in U.S. elections.

It is in the southeast where Bolsonaro outperformed polling and predictions. He picked up more votes in both Sao Paulo (47.7% to Lula’s 40.9%) and Rio de Janeiro (51.1% to 40.7%) while Lula won more in Minas Gerais (48.3% to Bolsonaro’s 43.6%), a state that has chosen the winner of every presidential election since 1989 — the first held after the U.S.-backed military regime of 1964 to 1985.

Voting map of the southeast states. The stronger the blue the bigger the win for Bolsonaro and the stronger the red the greater the lead for Lula. (Mapbox via Courthouse News)

“Many imagined that some last-minute votes would go for Lula, but the movement was the other way around,” said Brazilian sociologist Nara Roberta Silva, who shared her analysis on Twitter. “Following the pattern in other countries, the extreme right-wing in Brazil is here to stay. Bolsonaro/Bolsonarismo is deeply seated in Brazilian society.”

Brazilians also voted for governors in all 27 states, all 513 deputies in the lower house, and one-third of the Senate. 

Unlike in the U.S. where two parties dominate Congress, Brazil's is highly fragmented. Despite the segmentation, the right maintains control over both houses with Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party picking up 24.9% of the votes in the Senate and 16.5% in the Chamber of Deputies – against Lula’s Workers’ Party and coalition winning 12.3% and 13.9%.

If Lula wins in the second round on Oct. 30, he’ll face a majority opposition across the legislative floors, faced with the task of building support for any political program in a country that has become deeply polarized.

The campaign has elevated the deepening divide in the country and has been marked by political violence. In two recent separate cases, confrontations between supporters of the two main candidates led to the murders of two Lula supporters. 

Data from a human rights organization in Brazil found that between 2016 and 2020, there were 327 cases of political violence, including 125 assassinations and attacks as well as 85 recorded threats.

James Francis Whitehead, Courthouse News correspondent for South America, is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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