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Bolsonaro and Lula are heading to the second round after polarized presidential election in Brazil

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazil’s two main presidential candidates will face off in a runoff election after a polarized election to decide whether the country returns a leftist to the helm of the world’s fourth-largest democracy or keeps the extreme incumbent. right into office for another four years.

With 98% of the votes counted in Sunday’s elections, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva obtained 48% support and current President Jair Bolsonaro obtained 43.6% support. Brazil’s electoral authority said the result made a runoff between the two candidates with mathematical certainty.

Nine other candidates were also running, but their support pales in comparison to that of Bolsonaro and da Silva.

The tightness of the election result came as a surprise, as pre-election polls had given da Silva a commanding lead. The latest Datafolha poll published on Saturday found a 50% to 36% advantage for da Silva among those who intended to vote. He interviewed 12,800 people, with a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

“This narrow difference between Lula and Bolsonaro was not predicted,” said Nara Pavão, a political science professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco.

Carlos Melo, a political science professor at Insper University in Sao Paulo, said: “It’s too early to go too deep, but this election shows that Bolsonaro’s victory in 2018 was not a setback.”

Bolsonaro outperformed in Brazil’s southeastern region, which includes the populous states of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, according to Rafael Cortez, who oversees political risk at consultancy Tendencias Consultoria.

“The polls didn’t capture that growth,” Cortez said.

The Bolsonaro administration has been marked by incendiary discourse, its testing of democratic institutions, its widely criticized handling of the covid-19 pandemic, and the worst deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in 15 years.

But he has built a devoted base by championing conservative values, rejecting political correctness and portraying himself as someone who protects the nation from leftist policies that he says infringe on personal freedoms and produce economic turmoil.

While voting early Sunday, Marley Melo, a 53-year-old shopkeeper in the capital Brasilia, wore the yellow of the Brazilian flag, which Bolsonaro and his supporters have adopted for demonstrations. Melo said that he is voting once again for Bolsonaro, who met his expectations, and does not believe the polls show him trailing.

“Polls can be manipulated. They all belong to companies with interests,” she said.

A slow economic recovery has yet to reach the poor, with 33 million Brazilians going hungry despite higher welfare payments. Like several of its Latin American neighbors facing high inflation and large numbers of people excluded from formal employment, Brazil is considering a shift to the political left.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly questioned the reliability of not only opinion polls, but also Brazil’s electronic voting machines. Analysts fear that he has laid the groundwork to reject the results.

At one point, Bolsonaro claimed to have proof of fraud but never produced any, even after the electoral authority set a deadline to do so. He said as recently as Sept. 18 that if he doesn’t win in the first round, something must be “abnormal.”

Da Silva, 76, was once a metal worker who rose from poverty to the presidency and is credited with building an extensive social welfare program during his 2003-2010 term that helped bring tens of millions to middle class.

But he is also remembered for his administration’s involvement in major corruption scandals involving politicians and business executives.

Da Silva’s own corruption and money laundering convictions landed him 19 months in prison, leaving him out of the 2018 presidential race that polls show he had led against Bolsonaro. The Supreme Court later overturned da Silva’s convictions on the grounds that the judge was biased and in collusion with prosecutors.

Social worker Nadja Oliveira, 59, said she voted for da Silva and even attended his rallies, but has been voting for Bolsonaro since 2018.

“Unfortunately, the Workers’ Party let us down. It promised to be different,” he said in Brasilia.

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