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What you need to know about Brazil's presidential election

Updated October 2, 2022 at 9:36 AM ET

RIO DE JANEIRO — Sunday's election in Brazil will be one of the most-watched in Latin America, as two polar ideological opposites fight for the presidency in the world's fourth-largest democracy.

On the right is current President Jair Bolsonaro, a brash nationalist widely criticized for escalating destruction of the Amazon, bungling Brazil's COVID-19 response and casting doubts on the country's electoral system in the run-up to election day.

President Bolsonaro rides a motorbike with a supporter during a campaign rally in Santos on Wednesday.
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President Bolsonaro rides a motorbike with a supporter during a campaign rally in Santos on Wednesday.

He faces a tough fight from a former president and one of Latin America's most revered leftists, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula, as he is affectionately known, has led with more than 10 points ahead of Bolsonaro in many of the polls. But he has to overcome voter skepticism after major corruption scandals during his two terms in office landed him in jail.

Da Silva (center) sings the national anthem during a rally in the final week of campaigning at Portela Samba School in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.
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Da Silva (center) sings the national anthem during a rally in the final week of campaigning at Portela Samba School in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

Who the main candidates are

Eleven presidential candidates are on the ballot, but all eyes are on Bolsonaro and da Silva. While Bolsonaro's numbers were rising recently, most polls show him stuck in the low 30th percentile of voter preference. Many Brazilians are unhappy with the 67-year-old incumbent's governing. A survey in mid-September by Datafolha showed 44% of those polled said they disapprove of the job the president is doing.

A win by da Silva would be a stunning political comeback. The 76-year-old former metalworker led Brazil from 2003 to 2010. He expanded social welfare programs that helped millions rise out of poverty, during a time of economic growth and a boom in commodity prices. Leaving office, da Silva was widely regarded as one of the most popular politicians in the world. But in 2017, he was caught up in a sweeping corruption investigation, dubbed Operation Car Wash, that led to his imprisonment the following year. Da Silva has always maintained his innocence, and was released in 2019 after spending 580 days in prison. His conviction was annulled.

Da Silva greets supporters outside of a metalworkers' union in São Bernardo do Campo on Nov. 9, 2019, the day after his release from prison.
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Da Silva greets supporters outside of a metalworkers' union in São Bernardo do Campo on Nov. 9, 2019, the day after his release from prison.

What's at stake for Brazil

Brazil has among the world's highest confirmed coronavirus deaths per capita. It has struggled to emerge from global economic turmoil stoked by fallout from the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Economic problems, high inflation and discontent over inequality and corruption have led to a shift to the left in other countries in the region, including Chile and Colombia.

Protesters wearing masks depicting Bolsonaro perform during a protest against the government's COVID-19 response in Brasília on Oct. 20, 2021.
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Protesters wearing masks depicting Bolsonaro perform during a protest against the government's COVID-19 response in Brasília on Oct. 20, 2021.

The economy will be the toughest post-election challenge. Bolsonaro boasted at the United Nations recently that Brazil's economy is in full recovery. But economic growth is lackluster and inflation is hurting the poor. Political Scientist Guilherme Casarões says Brazil's electorate is highly polarized now after four years of Bolsonaro's presidency and hard-right rhetoric. The president insists he is the defender of family values, winning him support from a growing population of conservative evangelicals. He rejected lockdowns and mask mandates during the pandemic. And through executive orders, he not only loosened Brazil's gun laws but severely eliminated environmental protections in the Amazon.

What's at stake for the region — and the rest of the world

A deforested and burning area of the Amazon rainforest in the Lábrea region in northern Brazil on Sept. 2. The Amazon has been seeing its worst months for fires in over a decade.
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A deforested and burning area of the Amazon rainforest in the Lábrea region in northern Brazil on Sept. 2. The Amazon has been seeing its worst months for fires in over a decade.

Bolsonaro's support for agribusiness and disdain of environmental advocates have led to much weakening of Brazil's protection of the Amazon. During his presidency, deforestation in the world's most biodiverse forest reached a 15-year high, and forest fires have skyrocketed. The Amazon rainforest, one of the most important carbon absorbers for the planet, is now releasing more of that carbon into the atmosphere. Some scientists say without stiffer protections, the Amazon could reach a point of no return and irreversible environmental damage. Bolsonaro, who jokes about his moniker "Captain Chainsaw," claims that many fires were deliberately set solely to discredit him. Under da Silva, deforestation rates declined, and the former president has promised to protect the forest again if elected.

Bolsonaro's assault on democratic institutions has escalated in the run-up to the election too. He has spent more than a year prepping his devout base for a possible vote steal, very similar to the false claims made by former President Donald Trump, a big hero of the Brazilian leader.

Fears of violence if Bolsonaro doesn't accept the results

Despite trailing in the polls, Bolsonaro insists he'll win outright on election day, and avoid a second round run-off. He has long claimed that if he doesn't, it would only be because of widespread voter fraud — just as he alleged, without providing proof, in 2018. Like Trump, Bolsonaro falsely claims that his country's electronic voting machines are easily susceptible to tampering. As a former army captain, he remains close to the military, which he has said should monitor the election. Recently, Bolsonaro appeared to cool his rhetoric, while also maneuvering a deal for the military to monitor a sampling of voting machines on election day. Brazil has used electronic voting machines in its elections since 1996 and has never registered any significant fraud.

Workers prepare electronic voting machines during a sealing operation before Brazilian presidential elections in Brasília on Sept. 21.
Mateus Bonomi / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Workers prepare electronic voting machines during a sealing operation before Brazilian presidential elections in Brasília on Sept. 21.

When it's happening

Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday Brasília time (7 a.m.-4 p.m. ET). Congressional and gubernatorial elections will also be taking place. Results could come out as early as 9 p.m. in Brasília, thanks to the speed of the electronic voting system. If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, the two top candidates will go to a second round on Oct. 30.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.