Rio de Janeiro: Brazilians began voting Sunday in a white-knuckle presidential runoff election, choosing between wildly different visions of their future offered by far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his leftist arch-rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Lula, a charismatic former president tainted by graft charges, narrowly won a first-round election and enters the finale the slight favourite with 52 per cent of voter support, according to a final poll from the Datafolha institute on Saturday.
However, Bolsonaro, who scored 48 per cent in the poll, performed better than expected last time around, and many pundits see the election as too close to call.
Waiting in line to vote in Brasilia, Nadia Faraj said she had been up since 4:30 am worrying about the nation’s future.
“It’s a watershed moment for the country,” the 61-year-old Bolsonaro supporter told AFP.
“Brazil is teetering on the brink. We’ve spent years trying to rebuild the country,” she added, referring to a corruption scandal and economic crisis at the end of 13 years of rule by Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) in 2016.
“We need Bolsonaro.”
The president himself was among the first to vote, casting his ballot in Rio de Janeiro wearing a t-shirt in the yellow-and-green of the Brazilian flag - a symbol he has adopted as his own.
At one of the biggest polling stations in Copacabana, physical education teacher Gustavo Souza voted for Lula, who he hoped would “improve the lives of many people.”
When he was president there was “a little more dignity, access to food, education.”
Like many, he is nervous about the outcome.
“I admit I am a little scared, even about the result today. People have become so radical. They will need some maturity.... or it will turn into the third or fourth world war,” he said, laughing nervously.
The electoral showdown caps months of mud-slinging and personal attacks between the two men in a dirty campaign plagued by disinformation that has deeply polarized the nation of 215 million people.
Lula’s camp has called Bolsonaro a “cannibal,” “paedophile” and “little dictator.” In turn, the ex-president has repeatedly been derided as a “thief” and accused of making a pact with Satan.
Both candidates have their die-hard supporters, but many will merely vote for the candidate they detest least - or spoil their ballots.
The election has global ramifications: Conservationists believe the result could seal the fate of the stricken Amazon rainforest, pushed to the brink by fires and deforestation that have surged under Bolsonaro.
However, for Brazilians, issues of poverty, hunger, corruption and traditional values are top of mind.
An editorial in Nature magazine this week slammed Bolsonaro’s “eye-popping” record as “disastrous for science, the environment, the people of Brazil - and the world.”
Despite the clamour from abroad, the Amazon was only briefly touched upon in debates.
Lula, Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010, has told voters the election is a choice between “democracy and barbarism, between peace and war.”
Will Bolsonaro cry foul?
One of the main questions hanging over the poll has been if Bolsonaro - often dubbed the “Tropical Trump” - will accept a loss, after saying the very voting system that brought him to power was riddled with fraud.
On Friday night he pledged to respect the election, saying “whoever gets the most votes, wins,” though possible accusations of rigging and a backlash from his voters loom over the poll.
Bolsonaro came under fire for his disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which left more than 680,000 dead in Brazil, as well as his vitriol and disdain for political correctness.
However, in recent months, falling unemployment figures, slowing inflation and a recovering economy have given him a boost.
His core supporters - the business sector, anti-corruption voters and the powerful “Bibles, bullets and beef” coalition - love his gloves-off style and focus on conservative values.
The comeback kid
Lula was the country’s most popular president when he left office, helping to lift millions out of poverty with his social welfare programmes.
But he then became mired in a massive corruption scandal and was jailed for 18 months, before his convictions were thrown out last year. The Supreme Court found the lead judge was biased, but Lula was not exonerated.
A victory would prove a spectacular comeback, however, he would face a hostile Congress dominated by Bolsonaro lawmakers and allies.
Brazil’s 156 million voters will cast their ballots until 5:00 pm (2000 GMT). The result of the electronic vote is expected in a matter of hours.