Deeply divided Sao Paulo a perfect metaphor for Brazil’s contentious election

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There’s a Gotham City-esque feel to the towering skyscrapers that dominate the skyline in every direction as far as the eye can see. 

Sao Paulo is a megacity.

It’s a bustling financial hub, home to over 12 million people. The city proper is the most populous in the Americas, the western and southern hemispheres.

It’s the largest Portuguese-speaking city in the world – and that includes Portugal.

Sao Paulo has incredible wealth and dreadful poverty.

It is a deeply divided place. And is the perfect metaphor for Brazil‘s presidential election that is tearing the country apart.

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Across the country they’re voting in the second round of this election after neither the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, nor his main opponent Lula da Silva secured the vital 50% plus one vote needed for victory earlier this month.

The country is on a knife’s edge. It’s impossible to tell where this is going.

Both candidates are populists in their own ways.

Jair Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump, and he certainly apes his United States’ buddy’s approach to faith, gender issues, gun ownership, and human rights – and appears to simultaneously bask in abject rudeness with a tenuous adherence to fact if it doesn’t suit his personal agenda.

Like Trump, he and his advisers have been casting the election as rigged against them.

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There is a huge trade in election merchandise

This week his 26-year-old son Flavio Bolsonaro said his father is “the victim of the largest electoral fraud ever seen”, though they’ve offered no evidence.

And if Bolsonaro does win, that allegation will probably be dropped instantly.

He could win, the polls are neck and neck.

There is fear amongst Lula da Silva’s supporters that they lost momentum after the first round, that the polls had given them an inflated sense of confidence, and that the election result might not go their way.

Lula, a former president, is bidding to stage a remarkable comeback to the top of the political ladder.

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Arrested in 2018 on corruption charges, later quashed, he was consistently the most popular political leader in the world with approval ratings in the 80s and 90s during his time in office from 2003 until 2011.

Many thought he could win the presidency in the first round on 1 October. He didn’t, and worse for him and his party, President Bolsonaro closed the gap to a handful of points.

Now everything is to play for.

The polling companies in Brazil are very sophisticated, but their results have been questioned by many.

There is a huge trade in election merchandise here; towels, flags, buttons, and caps for both candidates are sold on street corners and outside virtually every subway station and at newsagents.

Jair Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump
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Jair Bolsonaro is often compared to Donald Trump

Saulo Adriel and his brother set up store on Paulista Avenue, this city’s equivalent of Oxford Street, and he’s doing a big trade in presidential merch.

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Hanging on the traffic lights next to a pedestrian crossing, Saulo has a chalkboard where he keeps a running tally which candidate’s merchandise is selling the best.

He told me after the first round it was literally neck and neck, but today, Lula appeared to be well ahead. That could be because he was about to hold a rally on the same street.

The real point is Saulo says he’s been totalling his figures up, and it appears to be too close to call.

“I don’t know who is going to win anymore. This is the most polarised election in history, I guess,” he told me while overseeing more sales.

“I think there will be 500,000 to one million votes difference between them, though I can’t say, literally, who is going to win.”

Saulo Adriel and his brother set up store on Paulista Avenue
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Saulo Adriel and his brother set up store on Paulista Avenue

While I spoke to him, he updated the chalkboard with another two sales for Lula.

Still, it’s so close he’s investing his money on both of them.

“My brother and I have already invested in 1,000 Bolsonaro supporter badges and 1,000 Lula badges, so it’s fifty-fifty, you know?”

The two candidates have finished their final election rallies.

President Bolsonaro took to his motorcycle in Belo Horizonte in Brazil’s south, and was greeted by thousands of adoring supporters, some also on their motorcycles.

Belo Horizonte is a bellwether state that usually predicts the eventual winner.

On Sao Paulo’s Paulista Avenue, Lula da Silva was greeted by huge numbers of partying supporters as he took to a cavalcade through the city.

In the crowd we met a group of university professors who were there dressed in white, as opposed to the party’s usual red.

Lula da Silva merchandise for sale
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Lula da Silva merchandise for sale

They explained the rally had been divided into a series of colours, and white indicated that they were there demonstrating for the protection of democratic principles and peace.

Marcos Oliveira, a professor at the University of Rio de Janeiro, told me he believes the behaviour of Donald Trump and his supporters after his election loss has been co-opted by Bolsonaro’s team, and threatens Brazilian democracy.

“The ideology behind Bolsonaro’s administration is the very same one that was built for Donald Trump,” he said.

“So, the structure behind it and the narratives are exactly the same, the difference is we know now in advance because of what happened with the elections in the United States, it prepared the groundwork for us to strike back, so we need to have this in mind.”

Standing next to him, his friend Professor Ariel Silva from Sao Paulo, nodded in agreement.

Marcos Oliveira (L) and his friend professor Ariel Silva
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Marcos Oliveira (L) and his friend professor Ariel Silva

“Their strategy is very similar to the strategy of Trump in the last election, so we more or less have an idea what to expect, but we are here to fight for democracy,” Silva added.

On the final day then, either could win, it seems to be that close.

The problem for Brazil is that the divisions are so deep any reconciliation between the two sides will prove incredibly difficult.

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