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latin america PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Bolsonaro storms to victory in Brazil yet falls short of first-round win

Far-right ex-Army captain takes 46.7% of vote and will face Lula-anointed PT candidate Fernando Haddad in a second round run-off.

Sunday 7 October, 2018
Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party, left, flashes a thumbs up at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday.
Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party, left, flashes a thumbs up at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sunday. Foto:AP/Silvia Izquierdo

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Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former Army captain who expresses nostalgia for the Brazil's military dictatorship was the clear victor in a presidential election Sunday, yet the outspoken candidate fell just short of winning the race outright in the first round.

Bolsonaro, 63, rallied voters with his promises to rid Latin America's largest nation of rampant corruption, crime and moral rot. With 96 percent of returns in, the polarising PSL (Social Liberal Party) candidate lead with 46.7 percent of the votes, an impressive tally that fell just short of the more than 50 percent needed to win the presidency outright in the first round. However, a final victory in a run-off to be held in less than three weeks is far from assured, experts believe. 

In second place was Fernando Haddad, the leftist stand-in for jailed ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was barred from running. Haddad, aged 55 and running for the Workers' Party (PT), had 28.37 percent of the vote.

Ciro Gomes, of the leftist Democratic Labour Party (PDT) took 12.52 percent, with Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) taking 4.83 percent.

Run-off

Bolsonaro and Haddad – the two top candidates from a field of 13 on Sunday – will have to duke it out on October 28. The top vote winner has momentum, but he will also face fierce resistance from a big part of the 147-million strong electorate put off by his denigrating comments against women, gays and the poor, and his unabashed nostalgia for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled his country between 1964 and 1985.

Surveys suggest Bolsonaro currently has a very slight edge for that run-off but the outcome is too close to call as Haddad will likely now pick up substantial support from the other beaten candidates.

Voting Sunday revealed the deep divisions generated by Bolsonaro and Haddad. Some voters – particularly women – wore "Not Him" slogans to polling stations, declaring their fierce opposition to Bolsonaro.

But supporters, like 53-year-old lawyer Roseli Milhomem in Brasilia, said they backed him because "Brazil wants change."

"We've had enough of corruption. Our country is wealthy, it can't fall into the wrong hands," she said.

Other Brazilians banged pots in protest when Haddad, 55, voted in São Paulo, the mega-city he once ruled as mayor.

There is palpable disappointment and anger at the PT, which blamed for being at the helm when Brazil plunged into its worst-ever recession, from which it is still struggling to recover.

One Haddad voter, José Dias, said it would be a "catastrophe" if Bolsonaro triumphed. 

"A lot of young people are voting for him. They don't know what it was like under the dictatorship," he said.

Split electorate

Better-off Brazilians have rallied to Bolsonaro's pledge to crush crime that includes more than 62,000 murders each year, nearly as many rapes and frequent robberies. The congressman wants to boost police forces and relax gun laws for "good" citizens.

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

But poorer Brazilians, who benefitted most from the heyday under the PT and Lula, its iconic former president , want a return to good times and hope Haddad can deliver.

The result is a very split electorate. Whoever ultimately wins will grapple with deep-rooted rejection and a large bloc of ideological hostility.

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

"We can't always vote for the same candidates, the same parties. Overall change is needed," a 58-year-old retiree, Rubens Dantas de Oliveira, said as he voted.

In Rio de Janeiro, Clara Gentil turned out to vote in Copacabana, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message "Not him."

"Brazilians were manipulated to vote out of hate. So this election is more important than others. Today, there is recession, hunger, people living in the streets, unemployed," she said. 

The outgoing president, Michel Temer – who took over after Lula's chosen successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached and ousted in 2016 for financial wrongdoing – was not standing for re-election. He will leave office at the end of the year as a deeply unpopular figure in a country with 13 million unemployed, climbing public debt and inflation, and record violence.

Next stretch

Many analysts believed that Bolsonaro would win the first round of voting but face a run-off between the two top vote-getters which he would he lose. A first round win was considered a long shot at best in a country where big parties and the public campaign financing and free ad time they command hold sway.

However, Bolsonaro's tally – just three percent off an outright win – indicates just how much support he has managed to win. Little in this election has gone to plan, and Bolsonaro's strong showing reflects a yearning for the past as much as a sign of the future. The PSL candidate made savvy use of Twitter and Facebook to spread his message that only he could end the corruption, crime and economic malaise that has seized Brazil in recent years and bring back the traditional values.

"I voted against thievery and corruption," said Mariana Prado, a 54-year-old human resources expert. "I know that everyone promises to end these two things, but I feel Bolsonaro is the only one can help end my anxieties."

Bolsonaro has painted a nation in collapse, where drug-traffickers and politicians steal with equal impunity, and moral rot has set in. He has advocated loosening gun ownership laws so individuals can fight off criminals, giving police a freer hand to use force and restoring "traditional" Brazilian values — though some take issue with his definition of those values in light of his approving allusions to dictatorship era torturers and his derisive comments about women, blacks and gay people.

He capitalised on Brazilians' deep anger with their traditional political class and "throw the bums out" rage after the Operation Lava Jato ("Car Wash") massive corruption investigation revealed staggering levels of graft. Beginning in 2014, prosecutors alleged that Brazil's government was run like a cartel for years, with billions of dollars in public contracts handed out in exchange for kickbacks and bribes.

Revelations of suitcases of cash, leaked recordings of incriminating exchanges between power=brokers and the jailing of some of the of the country's most powerful people, including Lula, unfolded like a Hollywood script — and then became one: Netflix released a fictionalised account of the probe this year.

The Workers' Party was at the centre of that investigation, and it has struggled to stage a comeback with Haddad, who has portrayed a country hijacked by an elite that will protect its privileges at all costs and can't bear to see the lives of poor and working class Brazilians improve.

Haddad has promised to roll back President Michel Temer's economic reforms that he says eroded workers' rights, increase investment in social programmes and bring back the boom years Brazil experienced under his mentor, Lula.

Violent campaign

Bolsonaro's poll numbers have increased by about 15 percent since he was stabbed by a lone attacker on September 6. He was unable to campaign or participate in debates as he underwent surgeries during a three-week hospital stay, but instead brought messages directly to voters via Facebook and Twitter.

"For a front-runner, the best thing to do is commit as few errors as possible," said Andre Portela from Getúlio Vargas Foundation, a leading university and thinktank. "Getting stabbed helped Bolsonaro in that. He wasn't exposed to debate, to people questioning him."

The campaign to run Latin America's largest economy, which is a major trade partner for countries in the region and a diplomatic heavyweight, has been unpredictable and tense. Lula led initial polls by a wide margin, but was banned from running after a corruption conviction. Bolsonaro's stabbing forced candidates, and Bolsonaro himself, to shift strategies and recalibrate.

All along, Brazilians have said their faith in leaders and their hopes for the future are waning.

This election was once seen as the great hope for ending a turbulent era in which many politicians and business executives were jailed on corruption charges, a president was impeached and removed from office in controversial proceedings, and the region's largest economy suffered a protracted recession.

Instead, the two front-runners merely reflect the rabid divisions that have opened up in Brazilian politics following Rousseff's impeachment and the revelations emerging from the Lava Jato graft probe.

Caught in the middle are Brazilians who dislike both candidates and see them as symbols of a broken system.

"I think we're going to continue with the same polarization," if either Haddad or Bolsonaro wins, said Victor Aversa, a 27-year-old massage therapist who voted for center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who had been polling third. "We've been on this path of crazy bipolarity. Haddad and Bolsonaro will both lead populist governments."

- TIMES/AP/AFP

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