Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro celebrate in Brasilia on Sunday night [Adriano Machado/Reuters]
Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil’s turbulent 2018 presidential election will go to a second round runoff between far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad of the left-leaning Workers’ Party (PT).
Bolsonaro nearly took Sunday’s election in the first round as he and his team insisted he would but in the end just missed the required 50 percent of votes needed to avoid a runoff, winning 47 percent instead. Brazil’s electoral court said Haddad won 28 percent of the vote.
The second round is scheduled for October 28 with much more drama promised in the meantime in a Brazil now seemingly more bitterly divided than ever.
Bolsonaro, 63, a seven-time congressman for Rio, questioned the legitimacy of the results, alleging problems with Brazil’s electronic voting machines: an accusation he put forward throughout his campaign that was often repeated by his supporters.
“I am certain that if this hadn’t happened, we would have known the name of the president of the republic tonight,” Bolsonaro said in a live Facebook video feed, looking tired and dishevelled alongside his economic adviser and finance minister, Paulo Guedes.
Bolsonaro’s mistrust of the electronic voting system was contradicted before the vote by Laura Chinchilla, the head of an electoral observation mission dispatched by the Organization of American States, who confirmed the system’s security.
The same system was also used to elect Bolsonaro’s eldest son Flavio to Brazil’s upper house Senate and to make another son of his, Eduardo, Brazil’s most voted lawmaker in history after he received 1.9 million votes.
Bolsonaro’s Social Liberty Party is now the second largest in the Chamber of Deputies after jumping from eight to 51 lawmakers in the 513 seat lower house, second only to the much longer established Workers’ Party with 57.
“More than an individual victory, Bolsonaro has provoked a political wave that is changing the political party equilibrium of the country,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at Rio de Janeiro State University.
For years considered a fringe congressman, Bolsonaro has risen as Brazil – Latin America’s most populous country and most powerful economy – has been rocked in recent years by mammoth corruption scandals, a brutal recession, and rising violence.
In Barra da Tijuca, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most affluent neighbourhoods, hundreds of Bolsonaro supporters of all ages gathered outside of the former army captain’s beachfront gated housing complex.
Many sported Brazilian flags and chants of “Him yes” and “Long live the military” competed against the sound of fireworks launched metres from an inflatable Lula balloon portraying the former president in prison rags.
Lucas Oliveira, 20, said Bolsonaro had “united everyone who was divided”.
“His win means bringing people together. He brought back my family’s belief in politics, which they had totally lost,” Oliveira, a Rio de Janeiro-based military police officer, said.
He is an outspoken admirer of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which was in power from 1964 to 1985, along with former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet of whom Bolsonaro once said “should have killed more”.
Jose Roberto de Toledo, editor and columnist at the Piaui magazine, called Bolsonaro a “defender of dictatorship and torture”.
“We are entering totally unknown territory, one without precedent in the history of post-dictatorship Brazil. The risk that he represents to democracy is hard to quantify, but the risk he poses is infinitely higher than with any other candidate,” Toledo said.
“If Bolsonaro wins, it is very likely that he will have to adopt populist measures to satisfy his electoral base. This could mean that he will go after minorities; it could mean that he will go after the PT or the gay population. We don’t know yet, but some people will fall victim to this.”
Although Bolsonaro easily won the first round and is tipped for success in the second too, surveys suggest the outcome of the October 28 is more uncertain. Haddad is expected to come up almost neck-and-neck with Bolsonaro as he picks up support from other beaten candidates such as third-placed Ciro Gomes, a centre-left former governor of the state of Ceara.
“We want to unite the democrats of Brazil, a broad and deeply democratic project, but that untiringly pursues social justice,” he told crowds in Sao Paulo on Sunday, the city where he was mayor from 2012 -2016.
Bolsonaro’s disparaging comments about gays, women and minorities disgust many voters but his proud political incorrectness and tough-on-crime posture has appealed to many others.
In 2017, there were nearly 64,000 murders in Brazil and Bolsonaro pledged to give the country’s already deadly police more rights to kill suspected criminals.
He is often described as a combination of US President Donald Trump – of whom Bolsonaro has expressed his admiration – and Philippines strongman Rodrigo Duterte whose bloody war against drug dealers and addicts has left thousands dead.
Other voters, such as Carina Correira Pinto, said they backed Bolsonaro on Sunday because of his clean record on corruption, another huge concern for Brazilian voters in this election as in recent years the country has been rocked by successive scandals including the far reaching “car wash” probe that toppled dozens of political and business elites.
“The politicians only rob, and he won’t do that,” 39-year-old Pinto, a dentist, said.