The two political heavyweights vying to become Brazil’s next president have locked horns during the final television debate before a momentous election with profound implications for the Amazon rainforest, the global climate emergency and the future of one of the world’s largest democracies.
The former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro faced off in Rio at the studios of Brazil’s biggest broadcaster, with eve of election polls giving Lula a slender but not unassailable lead.
During the techy encounter, Lula accused Bolsonaro of catastrophically mishandling a Covid outbreak that has killed nearly 700,000 Brazilians, arming organized crime by loosening gun laws, and trashing the Amazon and Brazil’s international reputation. “Brazil is more isolated than Cuba…. We have become a pariah,” the 77-year-old leftist said, castigating Bolsonaro’s “insane behavior”.
Bolsonaro, who was visibly nervous and lost his footing on stage several times, repeatedly called Lula a liar and highlighted the corruption scandals that tarnished the 14 years in which the ex-president’s Workers’ party (PT) governed from 2003 to 2016. “Lula , you’re a crook,” Bolsonaro fumed. “Your government was a champion in corruption.”
“He’s a one-note samba,” Lula hit back, citing one of bossa nova legend Tom Jobim’s most famous songs.
In his closing statement, Bolsonaro became confused and announced that, God willing, he would be re-elected to Brazil’s congress, where he served for nearly three decades until reinventing himself as an anti-establishment outsider before being elected president in 2018.
This year’s election – widely seen as the most important since the end of Brazil’s 21-year dictatorship in 1985 – has split Latin America’s most populous country, with around half of voters rejecting Bolsonaro and almost as many spurning Lula.
Lula voters view Bolsonaro as an incompetent authoritarian who has wrecked the environment and Brazil’s place in the world, bungled its Covid response, and divided society with his radical, hate-filled rhetoric. Bolsonaro supporters consider Lula, a moderate two-term president, from 2003 to 2010, a dishonest “communist” threat whose dealings with leftist authoritarians such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega make a mockery of his claim to be battling for democracy.
On Friday, Bolsonaro’s key international ally, Donald Trump, waded into the debate, urging Brazilians to reject Lula, “a lunatic radical left who will quickly destroy your country”.
Lula supporters fear that Bolsonaro – a dictatorship-admiring former army captain who has hinted he will challenge a result he considers “abnormal” – could provoke Trump-style turmoil if he loses. Those fears grew last week after one of Bolsonaro’s sons used unproven allegations of electoral foul play to claim his father was the victim of “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen” – almost identical language to Trump’s after he lost the 2020 US election to Joe Biden.
At Friday’s debate, Bolsonaro appeared to commit to respect the result. “He with the most votes wins,” he said.
Whichever side prevails, tens of millions of citizens are likely to be shattered. “I’ll move to Finland the next day,” if Lula wins, said Dhennis Wweberth, a Bolsonaro activist and evangelical pastor – his movement remains overwhelmingly loyal to the president.
Henrique Vieira, a progressive church leader who supports Lula, said re-electing Bolsonaro would give him a blank check to persecute leftist rivals and perhaps even to try to close congress.
“I believe Bolsonaro’s re-election could deal a fatal blow to Brazilian democracy … he’s a fascist and an authoritarian,” warned Vieira, who was recently elected to congress for the leftist Socialism and Liberty party (PSL).
“Defeating Bolsonaro and electing Lula is a historic task,” said Vieira, who has spent recent weeks battling to deconstruct Bolsonaro’s image as an “upstanding” Christian, using street protests and social media videos that call him the “anti-Christ”.
However, Lula’s allies have voiced cautious optimism in recent days, with polls suggesting his lead over Bolsonaro has grown to around 6%.
“I feel a mix of hope and certainty that we will win, but anxiety, too. This is one of the most important elections in Brazilian history,” said Cristiano Silveira, a lawmaker from Lula’s party in Minas Gerais, one of the country’s key swing states.
Backers of Bolsonaro, 67, insist they will triumph, noting that first-round polls underestimated his support. Lula won the 2 October vote with 48.4% but Bolsonaro did considerably better than expected, taking 43.2% rather than the 36% or 37% forecast.
Thomas Traumann, a Rio-based political analyst, predicted an even tighter result than the 2014 election, when the PT candidate, Dilma Rousseff, beat her opponent, Aécio Neves, by 51.6% to 48.4% – a margin of 3.45m votes. Neves’ party controversially – and unsuccessfully – challenged the result.
Traumann said he believed Bolsonaro’s campaign had been damaged by reports that his finance minister, Paulo Guedes, was considering freezing the minimum wage, and by a violent grenade and gun attack on federal police by one of the president’s radical allies. “[But] it’s going to be very close. It’s too close to call,” he added, pointing to deep-rooted public hostility to the PT and a Bolsonaro government spending spree designed to attract poorer voters with welfare payments. A Reuters analysis found his administration pledged to splash out 273bn reais (£44.4bn) in the lead-up to the election.
“I think it’s going to be 51%-49%,” Traumann joked. “I just can’t say for who.”
Outside the TV studio where Lula and Bolsonaro were crossing swords there was no sign of the gulf between their supporters being bridged.
Claudia Nunes, a 50-year-old physiotherapist who was part of a small pro-Bolsonaro crowd, said she was convinced her candidate would prevail. “Our flag will never be red,” she declared. “We hate Lula…. He’s a crook and a scumbag.”
Across the street, Thulio Siviero, a 37-year-old PT activist, said: “We feel really anxious. We are holding our hearts in our hands. But we are confident in victory.”
Nunes, who was wearing the bright yellow football shirt that has become a symbol of Bolsonaro’s far-right nationalist movement, was unconvinced. “Bolsonaro is going to win,” she claimed. “Lula will only win if it’s rigged.”