Brazil election: Fears Bolsanaro will refuse to accept defeat as bitter race with Lula goes down to wire

Brazil is preparing to vote in one of the most crucial elections in the country’s fractured democratic history, with the result set to have a huge impact on international politics and the world’s ecological future.

The last hours of the toxic contest between hard-right president Jair Bolsanaro and left-wing former leader Lula Inacio Lula da Silva, widely known simply as Lula, saw bitter accusations and recriminations as well as repeated warnings of possible widespread violence in the aftermath of Sunday’s polls.

There are serious concerns that Mr Bolsanaro, a former army captain who revels in his moniker of “Trump of the Tropics,” will refuse to accept defeat and trigger a violent confrontation with his armed supporters taking to the streets.

As the campaign drew to a close on Friday, Donald Trump intervened to urge voters to block Lula, who he claimed was “a radical left lunatic who will quickly destroy your country”. The former US president, who still wrongly insists he beat Joe Biden in the 2020 election, had previously stated “Jair Bolsonaro and I have become great friends over the past few years for the people of the United States… He is a wonderful man and has my complete and total endorsement.”

One of Bolsanaro’s sons, Eduardo, has met Mr Trump supporters in the US. Another, Flavio, a Brazlian senator, used words identical to the former American presidennt when he lost the US election in alleging that his father will be the “victim of the largest electoral fraud ever seen”.

The Biden administration has stated that it will move quickly to recognise the winner. The US Senate has passed a resolution urging Brazil’s government to ensure a “free, fair, credible, transparent, and peaceful” election and warning that the US will critically review relations with a regime which comes to power through anti-democratic methods, including a military coup”.

As well as the threat of instability and violence in Latin America’s biggest country, there is deep international concern about the fate of the Amazon rainforest, known as the “lungs of the planet”, as the Cop27 climate summit talks begin next week amid urgent UN warnings that key climate targets are not being met.

Mr Bolsanaro’s time in office has seen a sharp rise in mining, logging and fire clearances in the Amazon enabled by 600 regulatory changes by his government. Data from the Brazilian space research agency, Inpe, revealed that in the last 12 months alone deforestation in the Amazon increased by 64 per cent, affecting an area larger than New York City.

Lula, the 76-year-old former trade union leader who Barack Obama once called “one of the most popular politicians on earth”, has a small lead in the opinion polls on Sunday’s run-off, having won the first round without getting the required 50 per cent of the vote. He reached 48.4 per cent with Mr Bolsanaro getting 43.2 per cent.

On a final televised debate before the vote, Lula and Mr Bolsnanro traded insults with little discussion of policies. Lula accused the president of dire mishandling of the Covid pandemic, which has resulted in 700,000 deaths in the country.

Mr Bolsanaro refused to accept Covid was a serious threat or to back local and provincial authorities taking steps to prevent the disease spreading. In March 2020, as the disease a was spreading rapidly around the world, he returned to Brazil after a dinner with Mr Trump at his Florida home in Mar-a-Lago with 22 members of his delegation infected.

Lula also attacked the president over Amazon deforestation and for helping to arm criminal gangs by loosening gun laws, as well as overall behaviour which has turned the country into an international laughing stock.

Mr Bolsanaro focused on the corruption scandal which mired Lula’s previous Workers’ Party administration, saying : “Lula, you’re a crook… Your government was a champion in corruption.”

Lula was convicted of money laundering during an extensive investigation into public corruption and sentenced to nine and half years in prison in 2017. In a series of judgments from 2019 to 2021, the Supreme Court quashed the conviction, released him from prison and ruled that a judge had showed bias at his trial and his court did not have jurisdiction in the case.

The debate did not appear to have influenced supporters of either camp. “It was just a little theatre, people have made up their mind about this”, said Antonia Luiz, a 33-year-old teacher on her way to a Lula rally in Sao Paolo. “ We have had disaster after disaster with Bolsanaro. This is a chance to start putting the country right with Lula. He is a good man.”

Her friend Marcia dos Santos, 27, was worried that Mr Bolsanaro will ignore the electorate’s verdict. “He is a dictator by nature, he and his family have attacked our state structures,” she said. “Everyone is worried. My mother does not want me to be out on the streets after the result. But we have got to come out, we need to come out to defend the vote.”

At the G-16 gun range, the talk among Bolsanaro supporters was of another kind of subversion. “Lula is basically little better than a communist. We have had a lot of them in South America. If they try to steal the election then we must be prepared to act”, held Diego Pereira, a shop owner. “Bolsanaro believes in laws, he believes in the church, in our country, these are our values.”

Daniel Pazzini, co-owner of G-16, said : “We welcomes members and customers from everywhere. But the fact is that Bolsanaro defends the rights of gun owners, and Lula wants disarmament. A disarmed population would be easier to deal with by his government.”

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, is seeking re-election

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