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What's at stake on election day in Brazil


Voting has begun this morning in Brazil's presidential election. The frontrunner is Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva. He's a leftist who previously served two terms as president, and he held his final rally Saturday in Sao Paulo.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

RASCOE: Lula, as he's widely known, is running against Brazil's far-right incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has raised fears about the state of Brazil's democracy by suggesting he might try to hang on to power even if he loses. NPR's John Otis is in Sao Paulo, where the Lula campaign is based. Good morning.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

RASCOE: So these two candidates seem like polar opposites. Can you tell us a bit about them?

OTIS: Sure. They're both theatrical and fiery speakers. Lula's actually quite a legendary politician. He's on his sixth run for the presidency, and he's revered by many Brazilians because when he held that post for two terms between 2003 and 2010, he oversaw an economic boom that lifted millions of people out of poverty. Now, by contrast, it's been tough going for President Bolsonaro. He's a former Army captain. He's beloved by evangelicals and other conservatives. He even tweeted out last night that he's been endorsed by former President Donald Trump. But during his presidency, Bolsonaro downplayed the COVID pandemic, and Brazil ended up with the second-highest COVID death toll after the U.S. He's also dealing with an economy that, like in a lot of other countries right now, is facing high inflation and high unemployment.

RASCOE: But Lula has some political baggage as well. I mean, he was in prison not that long ago, right?

OTIS: Exactly. After leaving the presidency, Lula became entangled in a wide-ranging corruption scandal. He ended up serving about a year and a half in jail. And then in yet another twist, his conviction was thrown out on a technicality, and now he's trying to pull off what really would be one of Latin America's greatest political comebacks. He's also portraying himself as the guy who can save Brazil's democracy by beating Bolsonaro, who has a rather authoritarian streak. For example, he openly praises the country's former military dictatorship.

RASCOE: So if Lula wins the election, would Bolsonaro accept defeat?

OTIS: Well, that's kind of the big question. Bolsonaro has cast doubts for months on Brazil's electoral system, and many of his supporters say they'll take to the streets in protest if Lula's declared the winner, but at the same time, several factors could stymie this effort. Catalina Silva (ph), who I met at the Lula rally, says that if there's a landslide Lula win, then it would make it a lot harder for Bolsonaro and his supporters to reject the results.


CATALINA SILVA: To be honest, right now, I don't think that he has the support to do any kind of - anything against the democracy. Everything's going to be fine. So that's my hope for today.

OTIS: Also, there are races for local office on the ballot today, and those winners who come from Bolsonaro's party will not at all be happy if the president trashes the results. But other Brazilians note that their country has a long history of military coups, most recently in 1964, so a lot of people are on edge. And then also, keep in mind, you know, nothing might be settled today because if nobody gets more than 50% of the vote in the election - and that could be tough because there's several minor candidates on the ballot - the two top finishers are going to meet in an October 30 runoff.

RASCOE: That was NPR's John Otis in Sao Paulo. Thank you so much, John.

OTIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.