SAO PAULO (AP) — With some voters hoping for a fresh start and others fearing the worst is yet to come, Brazilians cast ballots on Sunday in a divisive election that comes on the heels of major political scandals and economic decline.
Pre-election polls showed an increasingly tight race between a far-right congressman who waxes nostalgically about the dictatorship and a leftist stand-in for jailed ex-President Luiz Inacio da Silva, who was barred from running.
The starkly competing visions have alienated as many people as they have attracted, bringing to the surface deep divisions along the lines of class, race, sexual orientation and "traditional values."
A year ago, many believed that "throw-the-bums-out" rage would buoy the chances of an outsider and end the hegemony of the center-left Workers' Party and the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party, which have for years battled it out for the presidency.
Like much in this election, it hasn't turned out as predicted. The man who has benefited most from widespread anger in the electorate is a 27-year veteran of Congress — Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Liberal Party — whose outsider status is based largely on hard-right positions. His campaign has included praise for a military dictatorship, insults to women and gay people and calls to fight crime by loosening controls on already deadly police forces.
Second is polls is the Workers' Party's Fernando Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor who was appointed by da Silva after the former president's candidacy was barred earlier this year.
"The Workers' Party is the party of corruption," Sergio Cervone, a 54-year-old doctor in Sao Paulo who voted for Bolsonaro. "Despite all his years in Congress, (Bolsonaro) was never involved in any corruption crimes."
Enzo Vito, a 20-year-old student voting in the same place, had a different take: Brazil's biggest problem is inequality, which the Workers' Party has worked to eradicate.
"The Workers' Party is the only party that wants to make use of all that this country has to offer," said Vito, who voted for the party's standard bearer,
But many voters expressed dismay at the choices before them.
Aurea Ferreira, a 39-year-old psychologist, said she voted for former Sao Paulo Gov. Gerlado Alckmin, from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, "out of a lack of choices."
"I will abstain in the second round," she said, assuming that Haddad and Bolsonaro would go through.
After voting in Sao Paulo, Haddad spoke briefly with reporters. However, his voice was drowned out as detractors banged pots in nearby buildings and supporters chanted that he would be president, a vivid display of a deeply polarized electorate.
Haddad said that Brazilians would see Bolsonaro's weaknesses in coming weeks.
"He struggles in debates. He doesn't have a team, or any big projects. I understand a desire (many people have) to have a result today. But it will be better for Brazil to compare" what the leading candidates want to do, Haddad said.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro voted in Rio de Janeiro, which he represents in Congress, and predicted he would get more than 50 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a second round runoff on Oct. 28.
"The people realize that Brazil can't continue the way of socialism. We don't want to be tomorrow what Venezuela is today," Bolsonaro said.
Though they come from opposite sides of the political spectrum, both Bolsonaro and Haddad ran campaigns based on nostalgia for a better time. Bolsonaro frequently evoked the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship amid promises of a return to traditional values and safer, simpler times. In one of his last appeals to voters before Sunday's voting, Bolsonaro tweeted that he would "defend the family and the innocence of children, treat criminals as such and not get involved in corruption schemes."
The Workers' Party, meanwhile, pushed the narrative that a vote for Haddad would be a vote to bring back the boom years that Brazil experienced under the leadership of da Silva, his mentor. On the eve of the election, da Silva tweeted: "Reach back into your memory, remember what my eight years of government were like."
Bolsonaro garnered 36 percent in the latest Datafolha poll, with Haddad 14 points behind. The poll interviewed 19,552 people Friday and Saturday and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Bolsonaro's poll numbers have increased by about 15 percent since he was stabbed Sept. 6. He was unable to campaign or participate in debates as he underwent surgeries during a three-week hospital stay, but instead brought messages directly to voters via Facebook and Twitter.
"For a front-runner, the best thing to do is commit as few errors as possible," said Andre Portela from Getulio Vargas Foundation, a leading university and think tank. "Getting stabbed helped Bolsonaro in that. He wasn't exposed to debate, to people questioning him."
The campaign to run Latin America's largest economy, which is a major trade partner for countries in the region and a diplomatic heavyweight, has been unpredictable and tense. Da Silva led initial polls by a wide margin, but was banned from running after a corruption conviction. Bolsonaro's stabbing forced candidates, and Bolsonaro himself, to shift strategies and recalibrate.
All along, Brazilians have said their faith in leaders and their hopes for the future are waning.
This election was once seen as the great hope for ending a turbulent era in which many politicians and business executives were jailed on corruption charges, a president was impeached and removed from office in controversial proceedings, and the region's largest economy suffered a protracted recession.
Instead, the two front-runners merely reflect the rabid divisions that have opened up in Brazilian politics following former President Dilma Rousseff's impeachment and the revelations emerging from the "Car Wash" graft probe.
Launched in 2014, prosecutors alleged that Brazil's government was run like a cartel for years, with billions of dollars in public contracts handed out in exchange for kickbacks and bribes.
Revelations of suitcases of cash, leaked recordings of incriminating exchanges between powerbrokers and the jailing of some of the of the country's most powerful people, including da Silva, unfolded like a Hollywood script — and then became one: Netflix released a (barely) fictionalized account of the probe this year.
Bolsonaro, whose base tends to be middle class, has painted a nation in collapse, where drug traffickers and politicians steal with equal impunity, and moral rot has set in. He has advocated loosening gun ownership laws so individuals can fight off criminals, giving police a freer hand to use force and restoring "traditional" Brazilian values — though some take issue with his definition of those values in light of his approving allusions to dictatorship era torturers and his derisive comments about women, blacks and gay people.
Haddad and the Workers' Party, meanwhile, have portrayed a country hijacked by an elite that will protect its privileges at all costs and can't bear to see the lives of poor and working class Brazilians improve.
Haddad has promised to roll back President Michel Temer's economic reforms that he says eroded workers' rights, increase investment in social programs and bring back the boom years Brazil experienced under his mentor, da Silva.
Caught in the middle are Brazilians who dislike both candidates and see them as symbols of a broken system.
"I think we're going to continue with the same polarization," if either Haddad or Bolsonaro wins, said Victor Aversa, a 27-year-old massage therapist who voted for center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, who had been polling third. "We've been on this path of crazy bipolarity. Haddad and Bolsonaro will both lead populist governments."
Prengaman reported from Rio de Janeiro. Associated Press writers Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo and Beatrice Christofaro in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.