Voters line up to cast their ballot in Sunday's elections in Brazil.

‘It will be a challenge’: Lula, Bolsonaro head to runoffs in tight Brazil elections

Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was expected to cruise to a huge victory on Sunday. But the final result showed President Jair Bolsonaro just a handful of points behind. This means weeks of intense campaigning ahead of runoffs at the end of the month.

The World

On Sunday evening, crowds cheered and chanted as presidential candidate Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva passed incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the vote count and took the lead. 

Cars honked their horns as they drove by. 

But it went from ecstatic to subdued within an hour as it became increasingly clear that this election was going to be much tighter than expected. 

“We’ve been following the polls,” said Wilson Gomes, a Lula supporter who was outside as the news came in. “And we weren’t expecting that Bolsonaro would receive such expressive support as Lula.”

Lula, with 48% of the vote, and 43% for Bolsonaro. 

Presidential candidate "Lula" among supporters on Sunday during Brazil's election.

Presidential candidate "Lula" among supporters on Sunday during Brazil's election. 


Michael Fox/The World

For Lula supporters, the victory felt like a defeat. In a speech after the ballots were counted, Lula responded to peoples’ fears. 

“Folks, we are gonna win these elections,” he said. “This is just a little extension.”

Lula told the crowd that he would hit the ground running today. 

Bolsonaro also spoke to supporters in Brasilia on Sunday night and said he’d be doubling down on several key states in southeastern Brazil where he hadn’t met expectations. 

There are many theories about why pollsters got the election so wrong amid Bolsonaro’s apparent surge. But one thing is clear.  Lula clocked in right about where he had been trending for weeks. Bolsonaro’s added support seemed to come from voters who decided to defect from the more centrist third-party candidates. 

Regardless, if the political climate was intense before, now it’s going into overdrive, experts predict. 

“This result will give Bolsonaro more enthusiasm to bring forth his discourse that his supporters cannot trust the polls and increase the risk of political violence in the campaign,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

Speaking with voters on Sunday at the polls in São Paulo, it is apparent that the country is polarized. 

On Sunday, Berenice Vieira arrived at the voting center with her husband and teenage son wearing matching Brazilian soccer jerseys, the colors of the Brazilian flag — yellow and green. Bolsonaro’s colors. 

“This election is really important,” she said. “We are defending our country, because there is one candidate that defends Brazil, that defends our homeland and family, and the other candidate that doesn’t.” 

Almost every Bolsonaro supporter who spoke with The World said they were afraid that if elected, Lula would sink the country into a quagmire of corruption and so-called “socialism,” rolling back their freedoms. 

On the flip side, Lula supporters said they were fighting for nothing less than the country’s democracy, trying to stop rising authoritarianism, violence, racism and continuous attacks on state institutions and social rights, including Indigenous communities in the Amazon.

Voters take part in presidential elections as well as local and regional contests.

Voters take part in presidential elections as well as local and regional contests. 


Michael Fox/The World

And while the battle for the presidency has captured headlines, the fight for Congress has been just as acute and will have a profound impact on these issues moving forward. 

More than 1,500 state and federal congressional seats were up for grabs — including over two dozen senators and governors.

An unprecedented number of Indigenous, Black and local candidates ran for office. And some of them won. Sonia Guajajara, the leader of the country’s largest Indigenous organization, was elected to Congress. As was the first Black transgender woman Erika Hilton. Six of the Landless Workers Movement candidates won state and federal congressional seats.

“This was a hard election,” Landless Workers Movement leader João Paulo Rodrigues said in a voice message shared with The World. “But we were politically victorious, even if we didn’t have all of the electoral wins that we needed.”

Bolsonaro and his allies also won big. The president’s Liberal Party now has the largest bloc in Congress with 99 congressional representatives. Several former members of Bolsonaro’s government are also on their way to Brasilia.

“Bolsonaro’s former ministers of agriculture, science, human rights, justice, environment and health and his vice president were all elected to Congress,” Mauricio Santoro said. 

“So, it will be a very conservative legislative power, especially the Senate, the upper house. And if Lula is elected, it will be a challenge.”

And that is also what the next few weeks will be — a challenge. 

Lula and Bolsonaro will be pulling out all the stops.

Supporters of presidential candidate "Lula" rally ahead of Sunday's elections.

Supporters of presidential candidate "Lula" rally ahead of Sunday's elections. 


Michael Fox/The World

Lula’s supporters see this as a silver lining, of sorts.  

“Had Lula won by a large margin. Had he won outright, then it would have been guaranteed that Bolsonaro would have contested the results,” UCLA Historian Bryan Pitts said. 

“Completely without evidence. But he would have contested all the same, and had the potential to gain support from some of the military and the military police.” 

 With a close election, Pitts said, it’s harder for Bolsonaro to contest the results.

 The second round vote is on Oct. 30.

Related: Lula battles Bolsonaro for chance to defend the poor again in Brazil

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