Sao Paulo, Brazil (CNN)Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro pulled off a thumping win in the first round of Brazil’s presidential election following one of the most polarizing campaigns since the country returned to democracy three decades ago.
Bolsonaro’s lead, in a field of 13 candidates, left him just short of the 50% needed to win outright and unable to avoid a runoff against Haddad, from the Workers’ Party, on October 28.
“We indeed are able to change the destiny of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said to media after learning he would face a runoff. “We cannot continue flirting with socialism or communism.”
A victory in the second round for former army captain Bolsonaro would signal a historic shift to the right in Brazil. The Social Liberty party candidate has stirred controversy by making misogynistic, racist and homophobic remarks and has often been compared to US President Donald Trump and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.
The campaign hit the headlines during last month when Bolsonaro was stabbed in the stomach during a political rally in the city of Juiz de Fora. The incident underscored the uncharted territory into which the election was heading and landed the frontrunner in hospital for several weeks.
Political divisions have deepened in Brazil as the country suffers from a prolonged economic recession and extreme violence, with murder rates reaching a record high last year.
The presidential campaign has been marked by the rise of the once-fringe populist Bolsonaro, the disqualification of a former president who was electioneering from jail, and ongoing revelations from the four-year-long “Car Wash” anti-graft probe rocking mainstream political parties in the country of 200 million people.
Bolsonaro, 63, 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 to vote, he told supporters and journalists gathered outside that he was confident he would get a majority.
Opinion polls released before the campaign closed predicted Bolsonaro could capture 35% of the vote, far less than he achieved.
The win for Bolsonaro may extend a rally in Brazilian markets, Bloomberg reported, as investors have favored him after years of economic woes under Haddad’s party.
Bolsonaro began to rise in the polls after the stabbing, but his increased viability also prompted a social media backlash 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.
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 said publicly he’d prefer to see his son “die in an accident” rather than a member of his family be homosexual.
But his supporters see him as an anti-establishment candidate who has pledged to fight corruption and tackle violence.
In addition to conservative elements in the police and armed forces, Bolsonaro is backed by powerful evangelical and agrobusiness lobbies.
The country has been wracked with strikes that buffeted the government of Michel Temer, who replaced Dilma Rousseff as Brazil’s president after she was impeached in 2016.
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.
Haddad became the default Workers’ Party 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 he 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.
The 72-year-old has strongly denied any wrongdoing. His defense said he was a victim of political persecution.
“I am feeling scared,” Marcio Correa, an advertising executive, said in São Paulo. “Fascism is way too close and it is frightening.”
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.
Before the vote, Claudine Dutra Melo, a historian, said she was supporting 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.”