SÃO BERNARDO DO CAMPO, BRASIL – Ever since Lula was first elected as Brasil’s president 20 years ago in 2002, 39-year-old Fernando Selestrino has come to the Dr. João Firmino Correia de Araujo Elementary School voting location to catch a glimpse of Lula voting the morning of the election.
“This year feels different,” Selestrino says. “The energy just seems to be much higher. The past four years [under Bolsonaro] have been so dark and everyone is so excited to see it come to an end.”
Today’s vote is the most electric scene that Selestrino has seen at the elementary school in 20 years of living there.
At 8:30 a.m., the room is filled with people waiting in line to see their neighbor, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Suddenly, from out of a side door, Lula appears flanked by a half dozen members of allies candidates and a slate of campaign aides and security staff.
“Lula, Lula, Lula!” the crowd cheers as the 75-year-old former president weaves his way through the crowd and starts hugging people and giving a thumbs up. In this lower-middle-class neighborhood, where Lula lived for many years, it had become a custom to greet him and wish him luck on election day. Hundreds of Lula supporters gathered outside dressed in red, the color of the Workers’ Party, singing songs and waving flags of various trade union federations.
“Today is a happy day,” says Moisés Selegres, president of the local Steelworkers union SMABC. “We will have someone back in the president’s office who cares about poor people and workers.”
Outside of Lula’s voting place, people have begun to talk about making plans to attend a massive street party on Avenida Paulista, the main central avenue of nearby Sáo Paulo.
But while polls leading up to election day showed Lula leading Bolsonaro by double digits and polling above 50%, the street party on Sao Paulo’s landmark Avenida Paulista never happened, and many Lula supporters have found themselves in a state of despair.
Later that night, when all votes were counted, Lula led only by a margin of 48%-43%, or more than 6 million votes. The inability to avoid a runoff now sets up a month-long process many activists fear will have a bruising effect on Brazilian democracy.
Bolsonaro supporters have already used the closer-than-expected results to cast doubts on the impartiality of the media, a common talking point of Bolsonaro’s in an attempt to paint the presidential elections as being rigged.
“Polls can be manipulated. They all belong to companies with interests,” 53-year-old Bolsonaro supporter Marley Melo told CNBC.
At Lula’s election night party later in the night at Novotel Jaraguá hotel in downtown Sáo Paulo, he sought to reassure his voters that victory was still within reach and they would have to work hard to win the additional 1.3% of the electorate that didn’t vote for him in the first round.
“We’ll have to behave like a football team when a match goes to extra time,” Lula told supporters. “We’ll rest for 15 minutes and then we’ll get back out on to the pitch to score the goals we didn’t score in normal time.”
Union leaders remained optimistic that Lula could indeed still pull off a victory.
“Fifty-seven percent of the population didn’t vote for Bolsonaro — that’s a bad sign,” Sergio Luiz Leite, leader of the chemical workers union FEQUIMFAR tells me at Lula’s election night. “Voters know who Bolsonaro is and they don’t like him. I think we are going to win.”
Now, for the next month until election day on October 30, unions in Brazil say they will make an all-fronts offensive to help Lula win the runoff.
“Now that there are just two candidates in the race, it’s going to be easier to focus on the difference between them,” says Luís Gonçalves of the taxi driver workers union NCST/SP. “We are going to have to talk to workers and focus on how bad Bolsonaro has been for workers. We didn’t win tonight, but the fight goes on.”