RIO DE JANEIRO • Brazil began voting yesterday in a divisive presidential run-off election whose front -runner, far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro, is vowing to save the country from crisis with a firm grip.
Mr Bolsonaro, who has tapped anti-establishment anger but also repulsed part of the electorate with disparaging remarks on women, gays and blacks, faces leftist Fernando Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor.
Mr Bolsonaro had an eight-to 10-point lead going in, according to two final opinion polls released last Saturday, which gave him about 55 per cent of the vote.
And while Mr Haddad had made up ground - he trailed by as much as 18 points two weeks ago - it would take a dramatic surge for him to win. "This thing is going to turn around," Mr Haddad, 55, buoyantly told thousands of supporters at his final campaign rally last Saturday.
Mr Bolsonaro, 63, made his own final pitch on social media, the only place he has campaigned since an attacker stabbed him in the stomach at a rally last month, sending him to the hospital for three weeks.
"God willing, (it) will be our new independence day," he tweeted.
Coming on the heels of a punishing recession and staggering corruption scandal, the Latin American giant's elections have thrown up a spectacular cast of characters, even by the standards of these divisive, anti-establishment times.
Mr Bolsonaro outrages a big part of the electorate - and many outside Brazil - with his overtly misogynistic, homophobic and racist rhetoric. But a larger number of people reject Mr Haddad and the tarnished legacy of his Workers' Party.
Mr Haddad is standing as a surrogate for jailed former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who led Brazil through the boom years of 2003 to 2010. Lula remains the country's most popular politician, despite being accused of masterminding the massive pilfering of state oil company Petrobras. But the hugely divisive Workers' Party founder was barred from running because he is serving a 12-year prison sentence.
Mr Haddad, who lacks Lula's charisma, has struggled to unite opposition to Mr Bolsonaro, despite rising fears over what the former army officer's presidency would look like.
The election looks set to be decided as much by 147 million Brazilians voting against something as for it. "I'm not very enthusiastic, because I don't really like either candidate," engineering student and music producer Elias Chaim, 23, said at a polling station facing Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. "But I want to vote Haddad, because Bolsonaro's discourse of hate and intolerance is a risk for our country."
In Sao Paulo, Mr Marcos Kotait, 40, a publicist, said he had "never seen such a polarised election". "It used to be people would actually vote for what they wanted, and not just against something," he said.