As Brazil Goes to the Polls, It’s a Far-Right Leader Vs. a Former Leftist President

Brazilians are heading to the polls Sunday in a polarizing national vote poised to usher in a new president, who will be forced to grapple with an economic crisis, surging Amazon deforestation and lingering questions over the health of Latin America’s largest democracy.

The election comes at a crucial moment for Brazil, where surging food and fuel prices, coupled with a painful economic slowdown, have made life harder for many Brazilians. Some 33 million people in the country of 217 million people are experiencing hunger and extreme poverty has surged, reversing decades of social and economic advances.

Environmental and climate worries also loom large. Deforestation in the Amazon has hit 15-year highs under the far-right incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, who believes the rainforest should be opened up to mining, ranching and agriculture and who has weakened environmental protections. The Amazon’ destruction — and its effects on the efforts to avert a climate crisis — have turned Brazil into a global pariah.

Who are the candidates?

The election is a duel between Mr. Bolsonaro and a former leftist president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 until 2010. Voters are seeking answers on how the two leading candidates plan to tackle a variety of challenges and put Brazil back on the path to growth.

Another nine candidates, including a former governor, Ciro Gomes, and a senator, Simone Tebet, are also in the presidential race, but all are drawing support in the single digits. Brazilians will also elect new governors, senators and representatives in the federal and state legislatures on Sunday.

What does Mr. Bolsonaro propose?

Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to hand out cash payments of about $113 a month to needy families, extending a temporary policy originally created to ease the pandemic’s painful blow.

Continuing the program, which rebranded and replaced a similar but less generous program introduced under Mr. da Silva, is meant to “reduce poverty and contribute to sustainable economic growth,” according to Mr. Bolsonaro’s official policy plan.

The far-right incumbent also vows to create jobs by eliminating bureaucratic red tape, slashing taxes and investing in technology. In a further nod to investors, who backed him en masse in 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro vows to maintain a free market approach, keeping public debt in check. Mr. Bolsonaro has spent heavily on welfare and fuel aid ahead of elections, after pushing to temporarily lift limits on public spending.

President Jair Bolsonaro during a rally last week in São Paulo.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

Echoing the hard-line rhetoric that won him support from ultra conservative and evangelical voters four years ago, Mr. Bolsonaro also promises to defend “the family,” opposing legal abortion and transgender education in schools.

A longtime proponent of privatization, he plans to reduce “the state’s role in the economy,” selling state-owned companies like Petrobras, an energy company.

But Mr. Bolsonaro also defends large-scale expansion of mining and agriculture, although he says growth must bear in mind “economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

He vows to more aggressively fight environmental crimes, but casts doubt on data showing a steep rise in deforestation during his presidency and maintains that Brazil has a right to the “sustainable use of its natural resources.”

Mr. Bolsonaro also promises to expand tough-on-crime policies, pledging to further expand access to firearms, a policy he credits for a drop in violent crime across Brazil. “Legitimate defense is a fundamental right,” the candidate says.

What is Mr. da Silva’s platform?

Mr. da Silva oversaw a golden era of growth during his two terms in office, when a commodity-fueled boom turned Brazil into a global success story. He promises to return the country to those glory days.

The leftist candidate vows to raise taxes on the rich and boost public spending, “putting the people in the budget.” His plans include a slew of social programs, such as a $113 monthly cash voucher rivaling the one proposed by Mr. Bolsonaro. Poor families with children will also receive another $28 per month for each child under 6.

Mr. da Silva has also promised to adjust Brazil’s minimum wage in step with inflation and revive a housing plan for the poor, while guaranteeing food security for people facing hunger.

The former leftist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva leads Mr. Bolsonaro in the polls.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

A former trade unionist, Mr. da Silva plans to kick start growth and “create work and employment opportunities” by spending on infrastructure, a nod to his past strategy. But he also plans to invest in a “green economy,” warning that Brazil must shift to more sustainable energy and food systems.

In response to Mr. Bolsonaro’s unfounded claims of voting machine fraud, Mr. da Silva says he will “defend democracy” and Brazil’s electoral system.

On the Amazon, the leftist candidate has signaled that he will crack down on environmental crimes by militias, land grabbers, loggers and others. “Our commitment is to the relentless fight against illegal deforestation and the promotion of zero net deforestation,” he has said.

How does the electoral system work?

Brazilians will cast their ballots through electronic voting machines, a system that has been in place for over two decades and that has been the focus of Mr. Bolsonaro’s claims about the risk of election rigging.

In July, he called foreign diplomats to the presidential palace to lay out his evidence, which turned out to be years-old news about a hack that did not threaten the voting machines. He has also enlisted Brazil’s military in his fight with election officials, raising fears that the armed forces could support any effort to hold onto power.

And late Wednesday, Mr. Bolsonaro’s political party issued a document that claimed, without evidence, that a group of government employees and contractors had the “absolute power to manipulate election results without leaving a trace.”

Electoral Court inspectors carry out final tests on electronic voting machines in São Paulo.Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

It was among the most significant attacks yet against Brazil’s election system. The party said that it reached its conclusion based on an audit of the election system it commissioned in July, and that it was releasing the information now because election officials had not sufficiently responded.

Brazil’s electoral authority immediately responded on Wednesday. The document’s conclusions “are false and dishonest, with no backing in reality” and are “a clear attempt to hinder and disrupt the natural course of the electoral process,” the agency said in a statement. The Supreme Court said it was now investigating the president’s party for releasing the document.

Voting in Brazil is compulsory and, in 2018, turnout for the first round of elections was close to 80 percent.

On Sunday, the electoral authority starts releasing results when polls close at 4 p.m. E.S.T. and the final tally is announced a few hours later.

If no candidate succeeds in drawing at least 50 percent of the vote on Sunday, a runoff election between the top two candidates will be held on Oct. 30. Once elected, the new president will be sworn in on Jan. 1.

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