IT’S hard to over-emphasise just how much is at stake in Brazil’s presidential election runoff today. Not only will it determine the future of one of the world’s largest democracies, but its outcome could tip an already polarised country into serious civil unrest and, according to some observers, prove a pivotal moment for the Amazon rainforest and de facto the planet’s future.

The fact that today’s vote hangs on a knife-edge after what has arguably been one of the most unedifying campaigns in modern Brazilian history has only added to the feeling of a political pressure ­cooker about to explode. Almost nothing has been off the ­table in terms of dirty tactics among the ­supporters of the two rival candidates – far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, ­sometimes dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”, and his challenger, veteran leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or “Lula” as he is commonly known.

Across social media these past weeks, a deluge of disinformation from both sides has seen Lula supporters link ­Bolsonaro to everything from ­paedophilia to ­cannibalism, while the president’s ­supporters have responded by saying that Lula is a “Satanist”, plans to close down churches if elected or let men use public school toilets next to little girls.

Such is the scale and ferocity of the two-way online onslaught that Brazil’s ­Superior Electoral Court – its top electoral authority – announced last week it would be banning “false or ­seriously ­decontextualised” content that “affects the integrity of the electoral process”.

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Some election watchers insist, ­however, that this has led to the strictest limits on speech in the country’s young ­democracy, while others note that what is being ­witnessed on Facebook, YouTube and other platforms is reminiscent to what happened in the US amid the 2020 election.

Parallels with that other rancorous election don’t stop there, though, with Bolsonaro using claims of election fraud that come straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook when it became evident that he would lose to Joe Biden. Bolsonaro – who lost out narrowly to Lula in the first round of voting four weeks ago – has consistently claimed that electoral fraud is under way but with no solid evidence to prove it. He has also urged his devoted base to “go to war” over the issue. Last week, Bolsonaro’s son, Flavio, ­reiterated his father’s claims, saying that he was experiencing “the greatest electoral fraud ever seen”, stoking up further the willingness expressed by the president’s supporters to fight for him on the streets if necessary.

Fears that Bolsonaro will not go quietly should he lose have led many Brazilians and those outside looking on to conclude that this is a dangerous moment for the country and its political future. Rio de Janeiro-based political ­journalist Thomas Traumann, speaking recently to The Guardian newspaper, said that ­Bolsonaro’s campaign conduct in the days running up to today’s vote suggests he is “going to contest” the election ­results.

“I have zero doubt – zero. He’s going to contest this,” Traumann said.

“The ­question is the scale of the ­violence that challenge causes,” warned Traumann, adding that “Trump is [Bolsonaro’s] idol and model.” The extent of the acrimony between Bolsonaro and Lula was evident on ­Friday night when both traded barbs in their final televised debate ahead of ­today’s tense runoff vote. Each attacked the other’s character and record, accused the other of lying and refused repeatedly to answer the other’s questions.

The tensest moment of the debate was when Bolsonaro called Lula to stand next to him as he answered a question. “Stay here, man,” the president said. The ­former president shot back, “I don’t want to be anywhere near you,” then turned his back.

For his part during the debate, Lula ­blasted Bolsonaro’s handling of the ­Covid-19 pandemic in which nearly 700,000 Brazilians have died, while ­Bolsonaro focused on the graft scandals that tarnished the reputation of Lula’s Workers’ Party.

Lula has had to overcome voter ­scepticism following the corruption ­scandals that sent him to jail for a year. With the graft convictions then later ­overturned, he began what has been a remarkable political renaissance capped this week with polling that suggests he is the slight favourite to come back for a third term.

That said, Bolsonaro outperformed opinion polls in the first-round vote this month, and many analysts say the ­election could go either way, making for a febrile and increasingly volatile political ­atmosphere across the country.

Earlier in July this year, a local ­treasurer in Lula’s Workers’ Party was fatally shot. Since then, there have been near-weekly reports by Brazilian authorities of ­politically motivated attacks.

This time last Sunday saw a violent showdown between an ally of ­Bolsonaro and police after officers went to the home of former politician Roberto ­Jefferson to arrest him on the order of the ­Supreme Court after he attacked a judge in ­comments online. During the standoff, Jefferson opened fire on a police car and threw stun ­grenades injuring two officers. Eight hours passed before his negotiated surrender. Commenting in the wake of the standoff, Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, warned that the shooting could be an ominous harbinger of things to come.

“What we saw on Sunday could well be the prelude to a new wave of political ­violence, in particular among groups who won’t accept the election result if President Bolsonaro loses,” Santoro told Reuters news agency.

One week on and with election ­anxieties reaching their height, concerns over ­potential violence and unrest in its wake continue to trouble many ­Brazilians. “The polarisation we’re facing this year is different from just a political ­polarisation,” says Felipe Nunes, chief executive of Quaest Research Institute, which conducts polls in Brazil.

“This year we are seeing affective ­polarisation – where different political groups see each other as enemies, not as adversaries.”

Most election watchers say that three key factors will likely determine the outcome.

The first is rejection, given that millions of Brazilians despise Bolsonaro, Lula or both. Four years ago, ­Bolsonaro was able to tap into the electorate’s ­dissatisfaction with an economic crisis and massive corruption scandals ­under the Workers’ Party (PT), which governed Brazil for 13 years – first under Lula (2003-2010), then Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), who was ultimately impeached. But all that has changed after Bolsonaro alienated many people with his hardline conservatism. The second factor that will be crucial to the election result will be today’s turnout. Around 32 million Brazilians didn’t vote in the first-round election on ­October 2. This is more than five times the six ­million votes that separated Lula (48%) from Bolsonaro (43%).

While voting is mandatory in Brazil, the financial penalty for failing to comply is 3.5 reais – the equivalent of less than a UK pound. Poorer voters – a group that leans heavily to Lula – are particularly ­susceptible to staying home, especially if they lack transportation. The cost of a fine is less than a round trip bus fare in many cases. THE third and perhaps most important factor influencing the election result is, of course, the economic arguments. While inflation in Brazil has started to fall, it still remains high, as does unemployment, exacerbated by the pandemic. This is a country where 9.5 million ­people are out of work and 33 million are living in hunger, leading in many cases to resentment towards Bolsonaro.

By contrast, Lula – who is ­remembered for an economic boom and social ­programmes that helped lift 30 million people from poverty – is leaning heavily on that legacy.

Crucial as all these issues are, there is another that will impact not only on ­Brazil but on the environment far beyond the borders of this giant Latin American country. During his time in office, ­Bolsonaro has slashed funding for Brazil’s ­environmental protection agencies while pledging to open the Amazon to ­commercial activity. In effect, he has presided over the ­greatest reversal of social and ­environmental ­protections in ­Brazil’s ­history, says ­Adriana Ramos, who ­co-ordinates the ­Policy and Law ­Programme of the ­Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a ­Brazilian NGO created to propose integrated solutions to social and environmental issues.

“Since coming to power in January 2019, Bolsonaro has led an onslaught against the government agencies and ­legal frameworks designed to protect ­forests and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, ­dragging Brazil back to the wild west days we thought we’d left behind more than two decades ago,” Ramos warns.

She is just one of many activists who ­insist that what’s at stake in today’s ­election is something far more important than just the leadership of one of the world’s largest economies.

“Whoever wins will inherit control over more than half of the Amazon ­rainforest and, by extension, will determine the ­conditions for future life on Earth,” is how Alessandra Orofino, co-founder and executive director of Nossas, which ­campaigns for social justice in Brazil, starkly summed up the responsibility of the next president in a New York Times editorial a few days ago.

It’s long been recognised that ­protecting the Amazon is vital to ­stopping ­catastrophic climate change because of the vast amount of climate-warming greenhouse gas the rainforest absorbs.

Under Bolsonaro, destruction in the ­Amazon last year hit the highest level since 2006, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). An area of forest larger than the ­entire nation of Belgium was destroyed ­during a period that largely overlaps with ­Bolsonaro’s first three years in office.

Preliminary government data also ­indicates that deforestation rose a further 23% in the first nine months of 2022. BOLSONARO’S public criticism of conservation efforts has also emboldened illegal loggers, ranchers and land grabbers to clear the forest with less fear the government will take action against them, scientists and environmentalists say.

Lula has countered with a vow to end illegal deforestation and create a special ministry for Indigenous Peoples, who have suffered a rise in violence and land invasions. His track record is in marked contrast to Bolsonaro. When he came into power in 2003, ­deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was at an eight-year high, at more than 6.3 million acres. The following year was even worse, with Lula inheriting what Christian Poirier, programme director at the advocacy group Amazon Watch, called “an environmental catastrophe”.

Lula’s administration, however, ­largely began implementing existing laws to safeguard the Amazon, including ­enforcing a law called the Forest Code, and ­getting various government agencies to work ­collaboratively to curb forest loss. The result was that deforestation fell ­dramatically between 2004 and 2012, with Lula in power for most of that time.

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It’s no real surprise then that many environmental activists are hoping for a Lula election victory today. Recent analysis by the climate website Carbon Brief suggests that if Lula defeats Bolsonaro, then given his election ­pledges, annual deforestation in the Brazilian ­Amazon could be down by nearly 90% by the end of the decade. In other words, based on his track record, a win for Lula could mark a positive turning point for the Amazon.

“For many Brazilians, this will be a painful election between two deeply flawed candidates. But for the future of human life on this planet, there is only one right choice,” says Alessandra ­Orofino.

Few Brazilians doubt that today’s vote is the country’s highest-stakes election since it emerged from a military ­dictatorship in 1985. For both Bolsonaro and Lula, the personal stakes are also considerable. What’s certain is that whoever wins, they will then face governing a deeply divided nation. At the time of writing, two polls show Lula maintaining a lead of five or six ­percentage points, in line with his ­advantage in the first round of voting on October 2. But as that first round ­illustrated, polls can be wrong and only a brave or foolish pundit would predict the outcome of this political battle of wills.

The stakes here could not be higher. From the future of one of Latin America’s largest democracies, to that of the world’s largest government-run public healthcare system, as well as the Amazon rainforest and the planet we inhabit, what happens today in Brazil matters.

Whatever the outcome, difficult and potentially dangerous political times lie ahead. If the world isn’t already ­watching and paying attention to this titanic ­electoral contest, then today it should be.