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Challenger Lula came out on top in Sunday’s election but it wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff with Jair Bolsonaro, who did better than expected

The fate of the Amazon rainforest hangs in the balance as president Jair Bolsonaro outperformed the polls in Brazil’s election on Sunday, sending the race to a runoff against leftist rival Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

After consistently leading in the polls against the far-right incumbent, challenger Lula, the 76-year-old former president who was first elected 20 years ago, came out on top with 48% of the votes.

The outcome wasn’t the outright majority Lula’s supporters had hoped would lead the former union leader to win in a single round.

Bolsonaro’s supporters celebrated a victory. With 43% of the votes, Bolsonaro performed better in all of Brazil’s 27 states than Ipec, one of Brazil’s largest polling firms, had predicted.

The results mean the election will go to a runoff on 30 October in one of the world’s most consequential elections ever for the climate.

At the same time, Sunday’s vote saw a surge in pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers enter the national Congress, which remains dominated by right-wing forces.

Brazilian climate analysts say the Congress makeup will remain a major obstacle for passing new climate and conservation policies. But a Lula win at the end of the month would have a greater impact in undoing four years of destructive policies in the Amazon.

Brazil election: Lula challenges Bolsonaro’s deforestation record, backs oil development

Climate and rainforest conservation issues have emerged as major issues in one of Brazil’s most polarised campaigns.

Both Lula and Bolsonaro plan to increase Brazil’s oil and gas production and proposed measures to halt deforestation to attract voters.

But Bolsonaro’s deforestation record and attacks on the rights of indigenous peoples, environmental and human right defenders, tell a radically different story. Under his term, deforestation in the Amazon rose to a 12-year high.

In contrast, deforestation fell sharply from a 2004 peak when Lula was in power from 2003 to 2010. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian senior policy advisor at the Rainforest Foundation in Norway cited cross-government coordination, the creation of protected areas and the demarcation of indigenous reserves for the drop in forest clearance.

“There will be an abyss of difference between what we can expect from Lula’s government and Bolsonaro’s. Bolsonaro is a carbon bomb. With Lula, there is hope that the main problems that Brazil is facing will be addressed,” said Rittl.

A Lula victory would see Bolsonaro become the first incumbent president to lose a re-election bid since the start of Brazil’s modern democracy in 1988.

However, the make-up of Congress, which is notoriously fragmented with dozens of political parties represented, will make his task a lot harder.

Bolsonaro’s Liberal Party (PL) now holds 99 of the 513 seats in the lower house – the largest share and an increase of 31 seats. His party also has the highest number of seats in the upper house.

At least seven of Bolsonaro’s former ministers were also elected to Congress including Ricardo Salles, who stepped down from environment while under investigation for alleged collusion with illegal logging, and former agriculture minister Tereza Cristina.

The centre-right Centrão coalition, which allies with anyone in power, and has propped up Bolsonaro during his four years in office, remains the dominant force.

Rittl said that the high number of seats gained by pro-Bolsonaro lawmakers was in part attributed to large sums of public money being invested in their constituencies from a “secret budget”, that could be spent at the discretion of the Centrão coalition.  “It has had a much higher impact than any election funding,” he said.

There was some good news for environmental defenders. For the first time, two indigenous women, Sônia Guajajara and Célia Xakriabá, were elected to Congress’ lower house.

Comment: The fate of the Amazon rests on the outcome of Brazil’s election

If he wins at the end of the month, Lula will need to pursue coalitions with the center-right to govern and pass laws. “Of course, there will be trade-offs,” said Rittl.

Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the climate NGO coalition Climate Observatory, told Climate Home, that the right-wing dominated Congress will continue to “try and impose setbacks on the environmental agenda in Brazil”.

But a Lula victory would outweigh any obstruction by Congress, he added. That’s because Brazil’s president has a right to veto any bill or legislative proposal.

A suite of laws weakening environmental protection and indigenous rights is currently awaiting legislative approval in Congress. Astrini said a Lula government could amend their contents or, as a last resort, scrap them.

And while it might be difficult for a Lula government to pass new legislation, Brazil already has an array of climate and Amazon protection laws and regulations which the Bolsonaro administration violated or sought to reverse that could now be implemented, said Ana Toni, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Society.

“Lula would still have a lot of power to move in the direct direction,” she told Climate Home. “If Lula gets into government, keeps democracy strong and implements the laws that we have, it would be a huge achievement.”

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