Brazilian election: Lula to face run-off vote against Bolsonaro

Contest much tighter than polls had predicted with Lula taking 48.4% of the vote and Bolsonaro on 43.2%

Brazil’s former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva fell just short of winning Sunday’s presidential election meaning he must face a run-off against far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in four weeks’ time.

After a tense count with early results showing the contest was much tighter than opinion polls had predicted, Lula took 48.4 per cent of the vote, leaving him 1.6 per cent short of the majority required to be declared winner on the first round. But while his share of the vote was close to that predicted by pollsters, the night’s big surprise was the performance of President Bolsonaro. He won 43.2 per cent of the vote, coming in just five points behind Lula rather than the double digit deficit opinion polls gave him.

The result sets up a face-off between two ideological rivals who loathe each other and whose bases view their opponents as illegitimate, risking further polarisation of Brazil’s already deeply divided politics with both candidates suffering from high rejection levels which helped drive abstentionism above 20 per cent in a country where voting is obligatory.

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Mr Bolsonaro, who at a closing campaign rally on Saturday said he would be re-elected with more than 60 per cent of the vote, called the result “adequate”. Speaking to reporters in the capital Brasília after a run-off was confirmed he also refused to rule out the possibility of fraud which was quickly taken up by his supporters on social media and chat groups to explain why he finished in second place.

The former army captain has led a long-running campaign to undermine confidence in Brazil’s highly regarded voting system. Without providing any evidence he claims it is vulnerable to tampering leading to fears he is planning to contest the result if his re-election bid eventually fails.

In a speech to supporters in São Paulo Lula immediately signalled he would now be looking for support from other candidates knocked out of the race to make-up the small shortfall in votes that denied him outright victory on the night.

“We are going to win these elections. This for us just means extra-time,” said the football-mad politician.

In their concession speeches the third and fourth placed candidates who between them took over seven per cent of the poll declined to immediately endorse a candidate in the second round, saying they would reflect first with their campaign teams. Senator Simone Tebet who came third with 4.2 per cent is widely expected to endorse Lula and polls have shown a majority of her voters and those of fourth placed Ciro Gomes are expected to break for the former president.

But Mr Bolsonaro has momentum going into the second round after beating expectations in the first as he now sets about tackling his campaign’s biggest obstacle — his stubborn rejection rating above 50 per cent. He is also strengthened by the success of the hard right in congressional and state races which help consolidate the movement as a powerful new force in Brazilian politics following Mr Bolsonaro’s emergence as a national figure in 2018.

A string of his former ministers were elected to congress including Eduardo Pazuello, the army general who oversaw the administration’s disastrous response to the Covid pandemic, and Ricardo Salles who had to step down as environment minister after US authorities accused him of facilitating the export of timber illegally logged from the Amazon rainforest.

But Fabrício Queiroz, a former army buddy of the president who is the central figure into an investigation into an alleged corruption scheme operated by the Bolsonaro family, failed in his bid to get elected to Rio de Janeiro’s state assembly.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America