Voting begins in Brazil as far-right Bolsonaro faces the potential for a resounding defeat

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

Brazilians head to the polls on Sunday in the first round 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 himself refuse to give up power.

But da Silva, a leftist who served as president from 2003 to 2010 and has a substantial lead over Bolsonaro in pre-election polls, ended that phase of the campaign in a jubilant mood that seemed intended to convince his supporters, his country, and the world The fourth-largest democracy on the planet would survive any last threat Bolsonaro might pose to it.

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

Da Silva, a former trade unionist who became an icon of the Brazilian and global left during his presidency, has topped Bolsonaro in nearly every poll conducted over the past year. His optimism received a further boost on Saturday when the latest pre-election polls by Brazil’s two top pollsters showed him ahead of Bolsonaro by 51% versus 37% and 50% versus 36%, while other candidates trail far behind.

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

It would be a triumphant return for Brazil’s first working-class president, who during his tenure spearheaded an economic boom that lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty and positioned Brazil as a rising global superpower. He left office with over 80% approval ratings and the title of “World’s Most Popular Politician” conferred by US President Barack Obama.

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

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

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

For the past two years, Bolsonaro has sought to cast doubt on the election, seemingly convinced that his only route to defeating da Silva was to undermine confidence in the competition and the election itself. He has peddled conspiracy theories about voter fraud, waged an all-out battle with Brazil’s electoral authorities 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”.

Threats from a former army captain with close ties to Brazil’s military have sparked widespread concern about a possible coup attempt, although most experts say it’s unlikely. Others have expressed fears of a Brazilian version of the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising in the US Capitol, an event that Bolsonaro – a close ally of former US President Donald Trump – and his allies have studied closely.

The combination of Bolsonaro’s conspiracies and his portrayal of the race as a “good versus good” battle. Evil “has contributed to a violent electoral atmosphere, during which several da Silva supporters were attacked and killed by Bolsonaro supporters. Da Silva has canceled events for security reasons and stepped up his own protection. Polls, meanwhile, have shown that up to a third of Brazilians are afraid to speak out, a number rising among supporters of da Silva’s Labor Party.

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

His public parade on Saturday, which saw little visible security presence around him, appeared aimed at countering concerns about violence and persuading his supporters to end Bolsonaro’s presidency at the first opportunity.

Many pundits believe a first-round win could mitigate 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 Bolsonaro has largely rejected and isolated thanks to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the erosion of democracy appeared 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 share with the world is that Brazil will wake up… with a prettier face. … Brazil has its heart and arms open to welcome the world back.”

Da Silva cast his ballot just before 9 a.m. in São Paulo, less than an hour after polling stations opened. Bolsonaro voted in his home state of Rio de Janeiro and will spend the day in the capital, Brasilia.

Polls will close at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with results expected within hours thanks to an all-electronic voting system widely recognized as one of the most efficient and secure in the world.

Top officials from the US and the European Union have expressed their confidence in Brazil’s electoral system to avoid a dispute in the face of Bolsonaro’s threats. The US Senate this week passed 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 have threatened Brazil with trade sanctions if Bolsonaro tries to remain in power despite losing the election.

Despite da Silva’s optimism, it seems unlikely that Bolsonaro will simply accept defeat, be it on Sunday or in a tie-break in three weeks’ time. He and his supporters have questioned the legitimacy of the polls, arguing this weekend that Bolsonaro, not da Silva, is close to a first-round win.

As many as a quarter of Bolsonaro’s voters Polls show he doesn’t want to be defeated, and many Brazilian observers think it’s unlikely he would do so after a campaign spent questioning the integrity of Brazil’s electronic voting system.

If the race goes into a second round, it would “give Bolsonaro an extra month to cause as much uproar as possible,” said Guilherme Casarões, a Brazilian policy expert at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.

However, da Silva pledged to celebrate the results of Sunday’s election even if he falls short of a first-round win, especially as polls show his lead over Bolsonaro would only widen in a head-to-head match.

“We will celebrate because we deserve it,” he said on Saturday. “To be reborn from the ashes is cause for celebration.”