A staunch backer of US President Donald Trump took a commanding lead in Brazil's presidential election today, raising the strong prospect of a far-right populist at the helm of Latin America's largest nation.

Jair Bolsonaro - a 63-year old former army captain whose unorthodox candidacy was laughed off by pundits only a year ago - was riding a wave of indignation against a corrupt class of traditional politicians.

With 92.5 per cent of votes counted, Bolsonaro was capturing 47 per cent of the vote. That figure put him on the cusp of surpassing the 50 per cent threshold needed to avoid a runoff on October 28 that most observers had seen as nearly inevitable. Even if a run off is triggered, he would be standing on the edge of a historic if divisive victory.

A Bolsonaro win - either today or later this month - would mark a stunning march forward in the heart of Latin America for a burgeoning global movement of right-wing nationalists who have already captured presidencies in the United States, Eastern Europe countries and the Philippines.

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Bolsonaro's strongman approach to politics and praise for the military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, has raised alarm bells among critics who fear he would move Brazil away from liberal democracy.

"Without a big party, without funds, without television time, but with sincerity and truth, we've taken down figures who thought that, by doing partnerships and deals with the large parties, through television, they would get elected," Bolsonaro, who had said he wouldn't recognise the results if he didn't win, told reporters while voting in Rio de Janeiro.

Leftist Workers' Party candidate Fernando Haddad, a 55-year old former Mayor of Sao Paulo, was placing second in a crowded field of 13 hopefuls, winning 28 per cent. Haddad is running as a stand-in for former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as he is widely known here. The former president is now behind bars on a corruption conviction and was barred from seeking office.

The campaign to lead Brazil has harboured echoes of the 2016 race for the White House, with Brazilians polarised over Bolsonaro's legacy of incendiary remarks denigrating women, minorities and the LBGT community.

Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party, waves to supporters after voting at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Presidential frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro, of the Social Liberal Party, waves to supporters after voting at a polling station in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Bolsonaro toned down his rhetoric as he sought to expand his appeal but has been targeted by critics in an online media campaign - #elenao, or #nothim - that has included the likes of global celebrities such as Madonna.

A seven-term congressmen who has praised Brazil's military dictatorship, Bolsonaro has long loitered on Brazil's political fringe. His path towards electability, experts say, has been paved by a failure of Brazil's political classes: Large swaths of the elected elite have been deeply tarnished by corruption. In contrast, Bolsonaro is viewed as a relatively untainted outsider.

Some of his backers - who include alt-right groups - videoed themselves casting electronic ballots for their candidate using the tips of guns. Yet, from the Amazon region - where a backlash is brewing over a surge of Venezuelan migrants - to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro was winning votes even among groups he has insulted.

His tactic has been to hammer down on the three issues Brazilians care about the most: the economy, corruption and a crime wave, which he has vowed to tackle with zero-tolerance.

"I voted for Bolsonaro because I'm tired of politicians being the same," said Maria Aparecida de Oliveira, a 63-year-old housekeeper casting her ballot in an upper-middle class district of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city. "Even if he is a little crazy, someone needs to bring change."

Even if he is a little crazy, someone needs to bring change

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"Bolsonaro is a strange phenomenon," said Lucas de Aragao, director of Arko Advice, a political risk company in Brasilia. "It's very hard to understand his movement, the why, the how. It doesn't have any precedent in Brazil. Even some Lula voters are turning to him. It's happened because Brazil loves this idea of a saviour, of a hero. And Bolsonaro now represents this image of a saviour as much as Lula does."

Just a few years ago, Brazil saw a surge of progressive policies under Lula, who, while president from 2003 to 2011, pushed through generous welfare programmes and labour rights. He oversaw a commodities boom that lifted millions of poverty, and left office with a dizzying approval rating of 87 per cent.

He was unable to transfer that popularity to his anointed successor - Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla fighter who was impeached in 2016 for failing to follow arcane budget laws.

Lula vowed to win back the presidency this year, and shot to the top of the polls. But he became engulfed in a sweeping corruption probe involving political bribes. In April, he began serving a 12-year prison sentence.

From his jail cell, Lula picked Haddad to run in his place. A Lebanese-Brazilian economist and one-term mayor of Sao Paulo, he is shy and pragmatic, and seen as a shadow of the larger-than-life Lula.


Haddad has met with investors, but many still worry he would not pass the tough reforms seen as necessary to avoiding another economic crisis here. Instead, they have swiftly backed Bolsonaro, and his liberal economic guru, the University of Chicago trained Paulo Guedes. And many Brazilians appeared to be supporting Bolsonaro out of fear of a Workers' Party return.

Despite having same-sex marriage and quotas for minorities in universities, Brazil remains a socially conservative and religious nation. Bolsonaro has earned key support among an increasingly powerful group: evangelical voters.

Many of Bolsonaro's core backers are also huge fans of Trump - a leader with whom Bolsonaro shares striking parallels. Bolsonaro is a tough-talker whose strongest followers include bands of angry white men. He champions "traditional values" but has been married three times. He directly connects with his legions of followers via social media.

In August, Bolsonaro's son - Eduardo Bolsonaro, a 34-year old who operates as a political surrogate much in the way that Trump's elder children do - tweeted a photograph of himself in New York with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

"It was a pleasure to meet STEVE BANNON, strategist in Donald Trump's presidential campaign," Bolsonaro's son tweeted in English. "We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview. He [sic] said be an enthusiast of Bolsonaro's campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism."


Yet Bolsonaro has been vague on the specific of his policies, largely implying them in fiery speeches. But he has vowed to crack down on the violent street gangs who control Brazil's drug trade and loosen gun laws so civilians can fight fire with fire. He backs the free market but has signalled out Chinese investment - saying he will work with Beijing, but that "we will not hand our territory over to anybody."

He has pledged to stop attempts to loosen strict abortion laws and has alarmed environmentalists by saying he would seek development in the Amazon.

Bolsonaro's backers in far-right moments have cheered on his infamous political incorrectness for years. He once said a gay son was the product of not enough "beatings" and told a female rival she was not worth raping because she was "too ugly." Last year, he said some descendants of slaves were fat and lazy and has lavished praise on the former military dictatorship.

"He's anti-woman, he's anti-black, he's anti-gay," said Juliana Prado, 39, a Sao Paulo resident who works in finance and voted on Sunday for Haddad.

"He's against everything," she said.