Brazil's deeply polarised election campaign is in the home stretch, with the fate of incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro and his leftist rival, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in the hands of voters.
Far-right leader Bolsonaro, 67, is seeking re-election after a predictably controversial first term in office, but recent polls have shown him consistently lagging behind ex-president Lula, 76, who left office in 2010 with an unprecedented 87-percent approval rating.
The incumbent is counting on his evangelical and business-centric support base to boost him to victory, while Lula – who served two consecutive terms from 2003 – is appealing to poor, minority and anti-Bolsonaro voters.
The Workers’ Party (PT) leader is also seeking to sway undecided voters and those backing the other minority candidates in a bid to win outright in the first round.
The two frontrunners appeared in a late-night live broadcast on Thursday, with Bolsonaro fiercely attacking his rival for alleged corruption offences in the final presidential debate.
The TV Globo debate, traditionally the most-watched pre-electoral programme in Brazil, was the last chance for candidates to sway undecided voters, who polls suggest number just 13 percent of the electorate.
Bolsonaro's camp pushed him to adopt an aggressive stance towards Lula, focusing on the corruption scandals that have damaged the PT’s brand, and pressing home his conservative values on issues of religion and abortion.
The pair were joined onstage by five other candidates with no statistical shot at making it to the final two, according to the most recent surveys.
With voting in Brazil compulsory, the most recent Datafolha poll showed Lula had strengthened his lead with 47 percent of stated voting intentions over 33 percent for Bolsonaro.
A winning candidate would need to garner more than 50 percent of valid votes cast – excluding spoiled or blank ballots – to avoid a second, conclusive round of voting on October 30.
Lula, who has stepped up efforts to sway voters in the final week of campaigning, is urgingBrazilians loyal to any of the minority candidates – who are all polling at less than 10 percent – to cast a "useful" vote for him, and against Bolsonaro, instead of backing their hopeful.
While voting intention for the front-runners is pretty much crystallised and the percentage of undecided Brazilians is substantially lower this time around, a significant number of supporters of leftist Ciro Gomes and centrist Simone Tebet could still change their mind.
Just over 10 percent of electors consider switching to a candidate more likely to win, according to an Ipec poll released last week. That might be enough to give Lula the votes he needs for a first-round victory.
The former president’s challenge, pollsters say, is to ensure that his supporters show up to vote, given that abstention rates are usually higher among low-income Brazilians who make up most of his support base.
Moreover, Gomes and Tebet, who together claim 12 percent of the electorate according to the latest Datafolha poll, have been trying hard to dissuade their followers from casting a so-called strategic vote for one of the front-runners.
“Strategic voting is voting with your conscience,” Tebet said during last week’s televised debate.
‘Working to win’
Lula received the explicit backing of several high-profile Brazilian artists last Monday, part of a strategy that has placed him as the head of a broad coalition against Bolsonaro and his beliefs. The previous week, he got the public support of eight former presidential candidates.
“I’m working to win in the first round,” Lula said during a meeting with former candidates, including ex-Central Bank chief and economy minister Henrique Meirelles and ex-environment minister and former Lula critic Marina Silva. “Every gesture I make is intended to show that I want to win.”
An outright victory would mark a resounding comeback by the former president, who had his reputation tarnished by corruption allegations that landed him in jail in 2018, before having his sentence annulled by the nation’s top court on technical grounds.
Since the country’s return to democracy, only Fernando Henrique Cardoso won elections in the first round, both in 1994 and 1998.
“It is not possible now to say whether or not Lula would win in the first round because he is within the limit of the margin of error,” Luciana Chong, head of Datafolha Institute, said in an interview with Bloomberg this week. About Bolsonaro’s chances of a victory, she was more clear: “It is very difficult.”
Fears for democracy
Raising fears for Brazil’s democracy, Bolsonaro has repeatedly hinted that he will challenge any result in which Lula is the winner, saying last weekend: "We are the majority. We will win in the first round."
Remarks like these have raised concerns that Bolsonaro is following former US president Donald Trump’s play book and preparing to challenge the election’s result, should he be defeated.
Two members of Bolsonaro’s campaign said, however, that the president’s goal is to keep his base energised to avoid an outright victory by Lula.
The people, who requested anonymity to discuss private marketing plans, said the incumbent needs more time to reap the fruits of more generous cash payments to the poor and to increase Lula’s rejection rate while softening his own image.
Earlier this week, European lawmakers said in a letter that Bolsonaro must respect the "rules of democracy" and Brazil's constitution, while the United State Senate passed a resolution calling for a "free, fair, credible, transparent and peaceful" election.