BRASILIA (Reuters) – Early exit polls in Brazil on Sunday boosted hopes among supporters of right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro that he could defy projections and win a first-round victory.
Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), gestures after casting his vote in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil October 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes
The fiery lawmaker has surged in opinion polls in the past week, and all major surveys suggested the race would go to a second-round runoff in what has become a referendum on Bolsonaro, a former army captain who praises dictatorships and vows a brutal crackdown on crime and graft.
However, Sunday exit polls suggested an even more dramatic swing. An Ibope exit poll for the Rio de Janeiro governor race showed former judge Wilson Witzel, a Bolsonaro ally, scoring a shock victory over former Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, suggesting earlier opinion surveys underestimated the electorate’s deep-seated antipathy for the leftist Workers Party.
“Exit polls are showing a tsunami” in favor of Bolsonaro candidates, Murillo de Aragão, head of the Arko political risk firm in Brasilia, said on Twitter.
Exit polling on the presidential race will be released at 7 p.m. local time (2200 GMT), when voting stations in far western states close.
Bolsonaro, 63, was accompanied by a nurse as he cast his vote on Sunday, a month after a near-fatal stabbing at a campaign rally that required two emergency surgeries. He said he was confident he had the majority of valid votes necessary to clinch the race without a runoff vote on Oct. 28, avoiding a showdown with the leftist Workers Party (PT).
“If God is willing, we’ll settle this today,” he told reporters. “We are on an upward trajectory and are confident that the Brazilian people want to distance themselves from socialism.”
An exit poll also showed one of Bolsonaro’s closest aides, former police Major Olimpio Gomes, scoring a surprise win in the Senate race in Sao Paulo state. In Minas Gerais state, exit polls showed another Bolsonaro ally scoring an upset victory in the governor’s race.
Bolsonaro is riding a wave of anger at the establishment over one of the world’s largest political graft schemes and rising crime in the country with the most murders in the world. His supporters blame the PT, which ruled Brazil for 13 of the past 15 years, along with reckless economic policies that contributed to Brazil’s worst recession in a generation.
Still, Brazil is split over the danger to democracy posed by Bolsonaro, a long-time congressman who advocates for torture and police violence, praises the country’s 1964-85 military regime and suggested that opponents could only win the race through fraud, although he now vows to respect the electoral process.
Geneis Correa, 46, a business manager in Brasilia, said she voted for Bolsonaro and would support a coup if the PT wins, blaming the party for rampant corruption.
“If they win, it will become Venezuela. People will be hungry, with a currency that is worth nothing,” she said, while leaving a polling station with her daughter. “If the PT is voted into power and there is a military intervention, I would support it.”
Bolsonaro’s closest rival, PT candidate Fernando Haddad, a former education minister and one-term mayor of Sao Paulo, is standing in for the party’s jailed founder, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is serving time for bribery and money laundering.
Two polls published late on Saturday showed Bolsonaro had increased his lead over Haddad in the past two days, taking 36 percent of voter intentions compared with Haddad’s 22 percent.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (1100 GMT) and the last will close at 7 p.m. Brasilia time (2200 GMT). Exit polls and official results will start flowing in soon after that via Brazil’s electronic voting system.
Voting was progressing without major incident. Many Brazilians faced long wait times to vote and a line of more than 500 people snaked outside one polling station in Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana neighborhood.
Brazil’s 147 million voters will choose the president, all 513 members of the lower house of Congress, two-thirds of the 81-member Senate, plus governors and lawmakers in all 27 states.
Almost two-thirds of the electorate are concentrated in the more populous south and southeast of Brazil where its biggest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio Janeiro, are located – and where Bolsonaro holds a commanding lead. A quarter of voters live in the less developed northeast, traditionally a PT stronghold.
In the most polarized election since the end of military rule in 1985, Bolsonaro is backed by a group of retired generals who have criticized the 2003-2016 PT governments and publicly advocate military intervention if corruption continues.
Bolsonaro, who compares his campaign to U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2016 run, dismissed as “fake news” the accusations of sexism, racism and homophobia that he has stirred with a record of offensive comments.
A Bolsonaro government would speed the privatization of state companies to reduce Brazil’s budget deficit and relax environmental controls for farming and mining. It also would block efforts to legalize abortion, drugs and gay marriage.
Bolsonaro on Sunday claimed he had the support of 350 congressman thanks to wide backing by the agriculture voting bloc as well as many evangelicals.
Haddad, who has presented himself as a fiscally responsible moderate, criticized Bolsonaro for skipping televised debates and accused him of wanting to win in the first round to avoid further democratic discussion.
“This is the gravest moment in our history. People are voting for Bolsonaro irrationally, with their emotions,” said Haddad supporter Ubiramar de Sousa, a doctor voting at a school in Brasilia.
(Graphic: Polling, issues and leading candidates in Brazil’s election – tmsnrt.rs/2Ixe0NI)
Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Jake Spring in BrasiliaAdditional reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Gabriel Stargardter in Rio de Janeiro, Isabel Marchenta and Eduardo Simões in São Paulo; Editing by Nick Zieminski, Marguerita Choy and Cynthia Osterman