BRASILIA, BRAZIL – Incumbent Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro began the evening with a modest lead of 8% as the results began to trickle in, yet over the course of the night, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula, slowly and steadily cut into that lead. At 8 p.m., with 70% reporting, Lula took a slight lead over Bolsonaro, eventually finishing with 48%, to Bolsonaro’s 43.5%, a significantly tighter outcome than polls had indicated.
Lula’s recuperation of the lead was a reflection of a slower vote tally coming from smaller states in the north of the country.
Bolsonaro appears to have outperformed in the south and southeast, doing particularly well in Sao Paulo state, and his political power base of Rio de Janeiro. Vote-rich Minas Gerais, the nation’s second-largest, was closely contested, with the lead changing several times, but finally ending up in the Lula column.
Lula performed extremely well in the traditional Workers Party power base of the Northeastern or “Nordeste” region, racking up large margins in states like Ceara, Bahia and his home state of Pernambuco.
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Given that neither candidate won 50%, Lula and Bolsonaro will now face off in a second-round election on October 30, when they will compete for the voters who backed third place Simone Tebet, and fourth place Ciro Gomes.
Leftist Gomes proved to be the great disappointment of the night. Known for having the sharpest tongue in Brazilian politics, he suffered from abandonment via strategic voting, by supporters that realized his campaign had no chance, and likely shifted votes to Lula.
The Bolsonaro camp often complained that the polls were biased and flawed, and it now appears that they had a legitimate basis for doing so. The nation’s leading pollsters, Datafolha, Quaest, and IPEC, among others, will certainly be scrutinized in the run-up to the second round election at the end of the month.
What is clear is that the methodology of Brazil’s pollsters was off by a considerable margin. While the last polls showed Lula with leads of between 7% and 17%, these differed considerably from the actual 4.5-point margin of Lula’s outcome.
For political analysts, the Brazil results may bring to mind such episodes as the Donald Trump surprise of 2016, the Brexit vote and Colombia’s 2016 peace referendum. Bolsonaro supporters are likely to be angry and have even less faith in the polls than before. They may be justified in those sentiments.
As political analyst Cristian Derosa argues, “There now remains no doubt about the use of polls as a means to influence [the electorate].”
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What is clear from tonight’s results is that Brazil remains a deeply politically divided country. Only three of Brazil’s 26 states make up 40% of its population: Sao Paulo with 22%, Minas Gerais with 10% and Rio de Janeiro with 8%. These southern states are generally more conservative, while the Northeastern states lean left.
Bolsonaro and Lula are very ideologically distinct, and Brazil’s 156 million voters often break down on racial, regional, gender and age lines that are not all that dissimilar to those of the United States.
As to why the polls were so far off, many theories exist.
Brazilian soccer star Neymar’s endorsement a few days ago may seem trivial, but in Brazil where “futebol” is afforded almost religious status, his backing (for which he was widely criticized on social media) may have shifted a few points in the Bolsonaro direction.
Derosa argues it likely had an appreciable effect: “In the last few days… It could have made a lot of difference.”
Brazil’s political system is complicated by its very large number of political parties: 33 to be precise. Parties are famous for constantly shifting alliances, and many of Brazil’s leading politicians have switched parties four to five times – or even more.
While Bolsonaro likely faces an uphill battle in the runoff election given his vote deficit with Lula, there was other good news for the Bolsonaro camp tonight.
Bolsonaro affiliated candidates fared well in gubernatorial and Congressional elections, in which Brazilians are electing governors in all 26 states and Brasilia, 513 federal deputies (to Brazil’s lower house of Congress), and one-third of its 81 Senators, corresponding to one for each state.
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Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party won 100 seats in the lower house to the Workers Party’s 79, and 13 Senate seats to the Workers Party’s nine, with other allied parties such as the Progressive Party and the Republicans faring well also.
In the most important gubernatorial election in the country, Bolsonaro-aligned Tarcisio de Freitas looks poised to defeat Workers Party candidate (and 2018 presidential nominee) Fernando Haddad in a runoff election for Sao Paulo governor next month.