Leadership race unclear in polarized Brazil

AFP
The first round of the Brazil presidential election left voters with a stark choice in the run-off between far-right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro and leftist Fernando Haddad.
AFP
AFP

Brazilian presidential candidates Jair Bolsonaro (left) and Fernando Haddad

A deeply polarized 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 percent of the vote to Haddad’s 29 percent, 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 percent threshold.

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

“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.”

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.

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 mobilized” 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.

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