Brazil’s far-right candidate dominates voting, but runoff will be held

Jair Bolsonaro waved at supporters after casting his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
Jair Bolsonaro waved at supporters after casting his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.Fernando Souza/AFP/Getty Images

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians on Sunday expressed their disgust with politics as usual and endorsed an iron-fist approach to fighting crime and corruption by giving far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro an ample lead in the first round of the presidential election.

Bolsonaro stunned the political establishment by rising to the top of a crowded presidential field despite a long history of offensive remarks about women, black people, and gay people. He also offered an emphatic defense of the country’s old military dictatorship.

The victory was all the more remarkable because Bolsonaro lacked the backing of a major party and campaigned on a shoestring budget, relying mainly on social media to build a base. As of mid-September, the Bolsonaro campaign reported having spent about $235,000, a small fraction of the $6.3 million Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party disclosed having spent.

Haddad, who also made the runoff, came in a distant second.

Shortly after 7:30 p.m., with 96 percent of votes tallied, Bolsonaro had just under 47 percent of the vote; Haddad trailed him with 28 percent. To avoid a runoff, Bolsonaro would have needed to secure at least 50 percent of the vote.

The outcome sets the stage for a bitter fight between men with radically different visions for Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, where leftists have won the presidency in every election since 2002.

While several of Brazil’s neighbors have steered to the right politically in recent years, a victory by Bolsonaro, a populist who backs President Trump, would be a seismic conservative shift.

Critics of Bolsonaro and political analysts have watched his rise with alarm, fearing he could become an authoritarian leader in the mold of Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

Before running for president, Bolsonaro, a former army captain with little to show for his seven terms in Congress, faced federal hate speech charges for homophobic, misogynist, and racist comments. He also spoke with admiration and nostalgia for Brazil’s military dictatorship, during which 434 people were killed or disappeared and thousands were tortured from 1964 to 1985.

Rejected by mainstream parties, Bolsonaro struggled to find a running mate until early August, when he picked a recently retired general who has advocated military intervention as a means to purge a corrupt ruling elite. He has said he intends to appoint other military leaders to central roles.

Bolsonaro’s rise was enabled by the political divisions that have torn the country apart in recent years.

Brazilians were outraged as leaders of the traditional parties became ensnared in an ever-widening corruption investigation that began in 2014 and became ever more despondent as the economy sputtered, joblessness grew, and crime soared.

Although some voters remained loyal to the Workers’ Party, which governed from 2003 to 2016, for its efforts to improve the lives of poor and working-class Brazilians, many came to hold it responsible for the graft and economic hardship of recent years.

Millions of Brazilians today enthusiastically embrace Bolsonaro’s radical approach to law and order, even it means killing criminals or political enemies, which were frequent themes for the candidate.

Georgewlany Smith, a 61-year-old public servant in Rio de Janeiro, said an erosion of democratic norms and civil liberties is a price he is willing to pay for a more secure and prosperous Brazil.

“You have to consider what were the best times for Brazil,” Smith said shortly after he voted for Bolsonaro in the upscale Barra de Tijuca district. “Unfortunately it was the dictatorship.”

Bolsonaro has tapped into the simmering anger and desire for disruption of the status quo that has gripped many Brazilians. And he became the face of a growing conservative movement in a nation where evangelicals account for 1 in 4 voters and more than 90 federal lawmakers.

The candidate offered little in the way of a detailed policy road map, particularly regarding the country’s floundering economy. When pressed with questions, he offered up Paulo Guedes, a market-friendly economist he said he would appoint as finance minister to curtail the social spending that grew under the Workers’ Party.

The markets rallied as he took the lead in polls, but Bolsonaro is “not the pro-market liberal he pretends to be,” warned Monica de Bolle, a Brazilian economist who heads the Latin American Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.

“He really stands out for having overly simplistic solutions to very complex problems, a characteristic that will certainly backfire,” she said.

Bolsonaro’s victory was the first presidential defeat for the leftist Workers’ Party since 2002. It will probably be denounced by many on the left as the undemocratic outcome of an election that excluded the towering politician in recent Brazilian history: former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a rousing former steelworker and union leader who rose to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s opposing the military dictatorship.

Da Silva, who served two terms and left office in 2011 with a record-high approval rating, was the front-runner for much of the past year and appeared well positioned to return to the presidential palace. But he became ineligible to run for office after an appeals court early this year upheld a corruption and money laundering conviction against him.

After da Silva was remanded to prison in April to start serving a 12-year sentence, he continued to run a campaign from his cell. Roughly one month before the vote, his party settled on Haddad, a former education minister and mayor of São Paulo, to take his place on the ballot.

Haddad, 55, who comes across as an earnest intellectual and lacks da Silva’s fiery charisma, was unknown in much of the country and failed to galvanize core Workers’ Party voters who had identified with da Silva’s working-class roots and life story.

Some voters remain fiercely loyal to da Silva, though.

Anita Silva Lima, a 38-year-old waitress who lives in Rocinha, a low-income neighborhood in Rio, said Sunday that she and her seven immediate relatives had voted for “Lula’s candidate,” resisting pressure from her boss, who urged her to back Bolsonaro.

“I don’t want a dictatorship — a lot of people died then,” said Lima, who is originally from the impoverished northeast, a Workers’ Party stronghold. “I don’t care about this corruption talk. Tell me the name of a politician who doesn’t steal? Bolsonaro steals, too.”

Others have lost faith in the Workers’ Party and feel the current race leaves them with no good options.

“They are all the same,” said Carlos Alberto da Silva, a 59-year-old driver in Rio de Janeiro who supported the Workers’ Party in 2014 and said he intended to spoil his ballot this year. “If the worst happens, I don’t want to feel guilty.”

Among the striking surprises of Sunday’s election was the defeat of former president Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, who was running for the Senate. Public opinion polls had suggested she would easily win a seat in her home state of Minas Gerais, but Rousseff came in fourth.

Clara Araújo, a sociologist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said voters showed a strong disdain for the dominant political factions on Sunday.

“The dissatisfaction over the economic crisis, it seems to me, was channeled along with a discourse about conservative morals,” she said. Those who voted for Bolsonaro, she said, saw him as “the option for a certain order, a certain stability, even if this notion was based on easy ways out.”