In Brazil, a dirty vote campaign ends with colorful rallies

Thousands of cheering supporters poured into the streets of Brazil Saturday for final rallies on the eve of a knife-edge electoral showdown between Jair Bolsonaro and rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva that is seen as too close to call.

"I think we will win," the charismatic but graft-tainted former president Lula said in Sao Paulo, vowing to "return this country to normalcy", before a final rally in which a sea of thousands of red-clad, flag-waving supporters cheered and sang "Get out Jair!"

Earlier, thousands in the bright yellow and green colors of Brazil chanted "legend, legend," as Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro held a motorcycle rally in the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte.

He also declared himself "confident of victory".

Lula is the slight favorite headed into the election, with 53 percent voter support to Bolsonaro's 47 percent, according to a poll published Thursday by the Datafolha institute, which will release a final poll Saturday night.

However, Bolsonaro performed better than expected in the first round of voting and the final outcome is highly uncertain.

Exhausted, and with nerves frayed after a bitterly divisive campaign, the nation of 215 million people are voting for two wildly different visions for Brazil, with everything at stake.

The election has global ramifications: Conservationists believe the result will seal the fate of the stricken Amazon rainforest, pushed to the brink by fires and deforestation under Bolsonaro.

However, for Brazilians, issues of poverty, hunger, corruption and traditional values are top of mind.

- God, family, freedom -

Bolsonaro is seeking reelection after a first term in which he was accused of mishandling the pandemic, which left more than 685,000 dead in Brazil, and dismantling environmental protections.

His tenure was marked by vitriolic attacks on his perceived rivals, ranging from the judiciary to women and foreign leaders.

His wife, Michelle, earlier led a motorcade through the capital Brasilia at an event dubbed "Women for Bolsonaro."

The first lady has been hard at work trying to win votes from women, one of the many groups that have been on the receiving end of controversial comments from her husband.

In campaign ads, Bolsonaro has apologized for his occasional "slightly aggressive" tone, and he has boasted of reduced crime rates, a drop in unemployment figures and curbed inflation.

His hardline conservative fans love his focus on "God, country, family and freedom."

"I am sure he will win," said small business owner Fabricia Alves, 36, in Belo Horizonte.

She said she supports the incumbent because she has seen the economy picking up after the Covid-19 pandemic, and "for the values" she sees as key.

"I am against abortion and gender ideology, which is what the other party wants to impose on our country."

Lula reiterated on Friday that he was anti-abortion -- a delicate issue in socially conservative Brazil -- during a final debate that featured mutual accusations of lying, corruption and disastrous management.

- 'Democracy and barbarism' -

The run-off campaign has been a dirty, gloves-off battle for every last vote between two men adored and hated in almost equal measure.

Lula, Brazil's president from 2003 to 2010, has told voters the election is a choice between "democracy and barbarism, between peace and war."

He was the country's most popular president when he left office, helping to lift millions out of poverty with his social welfare programs.

But he then became mired in a massive corruption scandal and was jailed for 18 months before his convictions were thrown out last year. The Supreme Court found the lead judge was biased, but Lula was never exonerated.

A victory would prove a spectacular comeback, however he faces being weakened by a hostile Congress dominated by Bolsonaro lawmakers and allies.

Bolsonaro on Friday night made one of his clearest pledges yet to respect the election result if he loses, after a campaign in which he has repeatedly attacked the voting system as fraudulent and said he would not accept the results of an "abnormal" vote.

"There isn't the slightest doubt: whoever gets the most votes, wins. That's democracy," said the hardline conservative.

Both candidates have fervent support, but many will merely vote for the candidate they least detest -- or spoil their ballots.

"It's not about the political agenda that I usually identify with. I am prioritizing getting rid of one candidate rather than electing another," Rio de Janeiro artist Karla Koehler, 35, told AFP.