Bitterly Divided Brazil Starts Voting With Democracy at Stake

(Bloomberg) -- Brazilians are putting their young democracy to a political stress test, going to the polls deeply divided after years of corruption and recession have pummeled faith in their institutions.

The 147 million voters in Latin America’s largest economy have from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday to cast ballots for a new president as well as most state and national officials. If none of the 13 presidential candidates wins a majority, there will be a second round Oct. 28. The final polls show the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro having extended his lead over leftist Fernando Haddad, but still falling short of an outright victory.

Bitterly Divided Brazil Starts Voting With Democracy at Stake

Brazilian assets have surged with Bolsonaro’s rise, as investors ignore his authoritarian streak and bet he’ll deliver on his pro-market stance. Haddad, by contrast, alarms money managers who fear a return to the statist policies pursued in the past by his Workers’ Party. It has been a bitter and even violent campaign that has divided families, seen Bolsonaro being stabbed by a fanatic, and then front-runner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva being imprisoned and banned from running for office.

"We’ve reached a point of madness," said Boris Fausto, a Brazilian historian who at age 87 witnessed two long dictatorships in Brazil come and go. "Extremism has taken the upper hand, particularly the rise of an extreme right that has no commitment to democracy."

Bitterly Divided Brazil Starts Voting With Democracy at Stake

The division was at play on Sunday morning in Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana neighborhood.

Liliana Leão, 40, formerly a bank employee but now unemployed supported Bolsonaro. "Of them all, Bolsonaro is the least bad," she said. "If he wins he will do everything differently." At the same polling station, Rosa Apolinario da Silva, 42, voted for Haddad and the Workers’ Party. "There’s no way I’m living with a gun inside my house," she said, referring to Bolsonaro’s pro-gun stance. "There are already enough guns outside my door."

Paperless Democracy

Bolsonaro has questioned the reliability of the voting system and even authored a bill in congress demanding a printout of each vote. It was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year. During this election campaign, the former paratrooper has repeatedly raised the possibility of fraud by the Workers’ Party, without offering any evidence.

Brazil is one of the few countries that uses an entirely electronic voting system. Voters type a number on a keypad and the corresponding candidate’s face appears on a screen, allowing Brazilians to check their choice before finalizing their ballot.

“The polling system is safe. With the biometric security, it’s impossible that the vote for one candidate goes to another,” said Ayres Brito, a former chief justice who also headed the country’s top electoral court. "Candidates and voters need to trust each other."

The defense ministry is deploying 28,000 troops to provide logistical support for Sunday’s election and to ensure Brazilians can vote safely. The federal police are responsible for the security of the voting machines.

For the first time, a team from the Organization of American States, led by former Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla, will monitor the vote, along with about 40 other international observers authorized by Brazil’s top electoral court.

Airlifted Suffrage

The logistics are far from straightforward in some of the more remote regions of the country. In Jacareacanga, for example, an indigenous village in the Amazonian state of Para, a helicopter will fly in two machines for the community’s 560 voters. The results will be transmitted by satellite or internet. If those options fail, election officials will retrieve the equipment by boat.

With three time zones in the country, the final polls in the western state of Acre will close at 7 p.m. Brasilia time. After that results should flood in quickly, with urban areas usually filing first. About 500,000 Brazilians living outside of the country are also registered to vote, according to electoral authorities.

Voting is obligatory between the ages of 18 and 70, on pain of a small fine and other administrative penalties. For Brazilians aged 16 to 17 and or 70 and over, voting is optional. Governors and state legislators are also up for election on Sunday, a new congress and two-thirds of the Senate.

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