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Brazil's Far-Right Presidential Candidate Leads But Can't Avoid A Runoff


A politician from the far-right in Brazil nearly pulled off an historic victory yesterday, a victory that would have changed the political landscape in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, won by far the most votes in the country's presidential election and was just a few percentage points away from a first-round victory. Last night, his supporters, though, were celebrating outside his house in Rio de Janeiro as if he had won.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Portuguese).

GREENE: In fact, there will now be a runoff, so he has not won at this point at least. We're joined now from Rio de Janeiro by NPR's Philip Reeves. Good morning, Phil.


GREENE: So how close was this?

REEVES: It was quite close. To win, he needed to get - Bolsonaro needed to get more than 50 percent of the valid votes. In fact, he got 46.2 percent. That's much better than the polls had been saying and a remarkable performance given that he has no big party behind him, he had very little access to TV advertising, and he spent three weeks of the campaign in hospital after being stabbed and severely injured at a political rally. But he fought hard, especially on social media, and now he's in a strong position to go on and possibly win. Well, he's in a strong position to win, actually.

GREENE: It's just an amazing story. I mean, it - not only was he campaigning from a hospital, doesn't have a party behind him, as you say - also a really controversial figure, right? So what's the appeal here?

REEVES: Well, there's a tremendous amount, David, of public anger in Brazil. People have lost - loss of faith in establishment politicians. And that's because of a massive corruption investigation which has exposed graft on an operatic scale in the highest places here. The country's had its worst ever recession. And it's come out of that, but its economy is still stagnant. This epidemic of violent crime - and Bolsonaro, who's actually been in Congress for more than a quarter of a century, has done a good job of positioning himself as an outsider. And he's tapped into this hunger for something radically different. And that was obvious when you talk to people outside his house celebrating last night. I mean, listen to Soula Ferrecci (ph), who's 62 and a speech therapist.

SOULA FERRECCI: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Brazil needs to change," she says. "It's in the hands of corrupt politicians, and the people are unhappy." And what Bolsonaro did very well was channel all that frustration and anger towards his chief opponents, which is the Workers' Party, which was in government for most of the time - well, when - the time when all this bad stuff was happening. So people have been willing to overlook, you know, Bolsonaro's record for misogyny and racism and making homophobic remarks and also his oft-expressed admiration for Brazil's past dictatorship.

GREENE: So what happens now? There's a runoff. And is he likely to win it?

REEVES: Yeah, it goes to a runoff on the 28th of October. This will be between Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad, who's the Workers' Party candidate. He came in second. He's a former education minister and former mayor of Sao Paulo. But most importantly, he's the stand-in for the former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who wasn't able to run in this race because he's banned because he's been convicted of corruption and is in jail. Now, Haddad got just 29 percent. That's a difference of about 18 million votes. So he has a huge mountain to climb. But we are now in for a ferocious bare-knuckle fight between the left and the far-right of the future of Brazil.

GREENE: All right, a lot at stake. NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio - thanks a lot, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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