Sao Paulo, Brazil (CNN)Brazilians are voting Sunday in a presidential election seen as the most polarizing since the country’s return to democracy three decades ago.
Brazil is also suffering from a prolonged economic recession and extreme violence, with murder rates reaching a record high last year.
Former army captain and congressman Jair Bolsonaro and ex-Sao Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad are leading the polls in a field of 13 candidates.
Opinion polls released before the campaigns closed this week projected Bolsonaro could capture as much as 35% of the vote Sunday. At least 50% is necessary to avoid a runoff on October 28.
Bolsonaro cast his ballot in the Vila Militar district of Rio de Janeiro, wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by a heavy security detail. On his way in to vote, he told supporters and journalists gathered outside that he was confident he would get a majority.
“First round, first round! On October 28, let’s go to the beach!” he said.
Haddad and his wife cast their ballots at a school in São Paulo. Haddad said he looked forwarding to broadening political alliances before the second round of voting.
“I am feeling scared,” Marcio Correa, an advertising executive who doesn’t support either front runner, said in São Paulo. “Fascism is way too close and it is frightening.”
Bolsonaro draws comparisons to Donald Trump
Bolsonaro has left few unscathed in his flame-throwing attacks on Brazil’s progressive movement. He’s often been compared to US President Donald Trump and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
He’s been accused by his opponents of being a misogynist and a homophobe. He once told a congresswoman during a parliamentary hearing that she did not deserve to be raped because she was “very ugly,” Brazil’s TV Globo reported.
He also has publicly said he’d prefer to see his son “die in an accident” than show up with another man.
During a campaign stop in the city of Juiz de Foralast month, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach. The incident seemed to symbolize the uncharted territory into which the election was heading and landed the frontrunner in the hospital for several weeks.
Bolsonaro began to rise in the polls after the stabbing, but his increased viability also prompted a social media campaign known as #elenao, or #nothim.
Thousands of people took to the streets throughout Brazil last weekend to voice their opposition to Bolsonaro, often comparing him to Adolf Hitler in posters and chants.
Others see him as an anti-establishment candidate who will fight corruption and tackle violence.
David Lerner, a businessman in Sao Paulo, said he backs Bolsonaro because he “represents a change” in the country. “He has never been in any (federal) government. He never took part in any corruption scandal,” Lerner said.
In addition to conservative elements in the police and armed forces, Bolsonaro is backed by powerful evangelical and agrobusiness lobbies.
Haddad steps into Lula’s shoes
Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor, heads the ticket for the Workers’ Party. He became the default candidate after his running mate and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was barred from running by the country’s highest electoral court.
“Lula,” as the former leader is popularly known, had been leading in the polls despite being in jail since April, where he is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption and money laundering.
Claudine Dutra Melo, a historian, said she will vote for Haddad because “there is no other candidate” to respond to the “mediatic-parliamentary-judicial coup” against popular politicians in the country. “People think that voting for Bolsonaro is a protest vote,” she said, “and they do not realize the risk they are taking on in being favorable to this kind of ideology.”
Election likely headed for a runoff
Neither of the leading candidates is expected to get the 50% majority required by law, so a runoff vote has already been scheduled for October 28.
Voting is mandatory in Brazil for all citizens who are 18 to 70 years old. People who fail to vote without any justification often face fines and risk bureaucratic hurdles when renewing passports or IDs.
At least 11% of voters will leave their ballots blank or mark them as undecided, according to a recent statistics from the Ibope polling agency.
Brazilians will also vote Sunday on 27 governors and nearly 1,600 lawmakers.