All you need to know about most divisive vote in Brazil’s history

Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva face off amid concerns over political violence, disinformation and the future of Brazil’s democracy.

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva wave flags in Brazil
Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva wave flags during an election campaign rally in Brasilia on October 26, 2022 [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Brazilians are heading to the polls after what has been described as the country’s most polarised election campaign, pitting far-right President Jair Bolsonaro against his left-wing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Lula is going into the second round of presidential voting on Sunday with a stable lead over Bolsonaro, most recent polls have shown.

However, polling ahead of the first round underestimated voters’ support for the incumbent, prompting public backlash and forcing a second round.

Here’s all you need to know about the tightly contested vote:

Why did the election go to a second round?

Brazil held a first round of voting on October 2, but none of the 11 presidential candidates secured an outright majority.

That set up Sunday’s run-off between Lula and Bolsonaro, who finished with 48 and 43 percent support, respectively.

Governorships in states where no candidate won a first-round majority will also be up for grabs.

What have the presidential candidates promised?

Lula, who served as president from 2003 to 2010, has appealed to Brazilians to elect him to help “rebuild and transform” the country after four years under Bolsonaro.

He has pledged to support low-income citizens and reinstate environmental protection policies, especially in the Amazon, which has seen a surge in deforestation and increased attacks against Indigenous people in recent years.

Bolsonaro, whose mantra is “God, family, country”, has announced new support programmes for poor Brazilians while promoting economic development and promising to tackle crime and corruption. He also has stressed conservative values, including his opposition to legalised abortion and drugs while falsely warning that Lula’s return would lead to the persecution of churches.

Lula’s campaign is about the past; that is its biggest strength and biggest weakness,” Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, recently told The Associated Press.

“It is the memory of boom years of the 2000s that makes people want to vote for him. But his unwillingness or inability to articulate new ideas and bring in fresh faces has left him somewhat helpless as Bolsonaro closes the gap.”

Where do Bolsonaro and Lula get most of their support?

Typically, support for Lula and his Workers’ Party has come from working-class Brazilians and rural areas. Bolsonaro has the backing of conservatives, evangelical Christians – a key voting bloc – and business interests.

Election watchers will be paying close attention to what happens in Minas Gerais, an inland state in Brazil’s southeast that is considered “a micro-sample of the Brazilian electorate”, Al Jazeera’s Latin America editor Lucia Newman reported this week.

“If this race is as tight as most predict, every single vote will count, especially here in Minas Gerais, where no Brazilian president has ever won without winning the state,” Newman said.

What other issues have come up during the campaign?

Disinformation has been a major problem in Brazil throughout the election cycle, experts say, with much of it spreading on social media platforms, such as TikTok as well as through the messaging app WhatsApp.

People have falsely said Lula wants to let men use public school toilets next to little girls while others have falsely alleged that Bolsonaro has made comments confessing to cannibalism and paedophilia.

There has been an increase in misinformation and disinformation being spread on social media, said Flora S Rebello Arduini, campaign director at SumOfUs, a non-profit group that has monitored the problem in the context of Brazil’s elections.

One of the most concerning things, she told Al Jazeera, is that companies have allowed advertisements on content containing disinformation and hate speech and sowing distrust in the electoral system.

She added that the Bolsonaro campaign has been responsible for much of the disinformation. “They are following the playbook that [former US President Donald] Trump has put in place in the 2020 elections.”

What impact has that disinformation had?

For months, experts have raised concerns that disinformation – especially around the Brazilian electoral system – could lead to politically motivated violence.

There have been several violent incidents during the campaign, including one last week involving a former congressman who is a Bolsonaro supporter. Roberto Jefferson opened fire and threw stun grenades at federal police who had gone to arrest him on order from the Supreme Court for insulting one of its justices. Two officers were injured.

Amnesty International’s Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, warned on Friday that there had been an “exponential increase” in reports of harassment and intimidation in the lead-up to the presidential vote.

“Electoral intimidation has been particularly prominent in religious centres, and it has flooded social media, where more and more people, including public figures, assault and persecute those who express an opinion different from their own,” Guevara-Rosas said in a statement.

“President Jair Bolsonaro and his administration must ensure that they disseminate reliable information, counter false statements and do everything in their power to prevent and condemn any attacks and intimidation in the days leading up to the presidential run-off vote,” she said.

Could more violence break out after the vote?

That has been a major concern.

Bolsonaro for months has said without evidence that Brazil’s electronic voting system is vulnerable to widespread fraud. Observers have accused him of planning to contest the election results similarly to Trump, whom he has emulated.

Brazil was under authoritarian military rule from 1964 to 1985, and Bolsonaro – a former army captain – has expressed admiration for the former regime, which has been described as a “brutal dictatorship” by rights groups. That has added to the tensions around the current election campaign and spurred calls from lawmakers in the US and Europe for Bolsonaro to respect the results.

In a letter late last month to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, dozens of European legislators said it was “crucial” to dissuade Brazil’s military leadership from supporting “a coup”.

What else is at stake?

Ahead of the first round, Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo said many Brazilian voters viewed the election “as a critical battle over the future of Brazilian democracy”.

That was recently echoed by Human Rights Watch researchers Deborah Brown and Maria Laura Canineu, who added that the “critical test for democracy and the rule of law” could also have implications beyond the country’s borders, “given Brazil’s size and influence”.

The future of the Amazon, which is critical to combatting climate change, also hangs in the balance. There has been a surge in deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest under Bolsonaro’s administration, prompting global condemnation.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies