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Some wanted to believe Bolsonaro was a fluke. Voters showed he wasn’t.

A man in Rio de Janeiro on Monday peruses newspapers showing the results of the first round of Brazil's presidential election. President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are headed to a runoff Oct. 30. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO — For years, opponents have relied on a facile explanation for how a man such as Jair Bolsonaro — profane, homophobic, given to conspiracy theories — could have won the presidency of Latin America’s largest country.

It was a fluke.

The narrative held that an extraordinary and unusual sequence of events leading up to the 2018 election propelled the rise of the right-wing former army captain with an unusual fondness for Brazil’s military dictatorship. A sprawling corruption probe had tarred much of Brazil’s political class — but not Bolsonaro. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was jailed and barred from running for president. And finally, weeks before the vote, came a stabbing on the campaign trail. What didn’t kill him breathed new life into his outsider bid.

His presidency appeared to confirm the contention. The polls have consistently showed high disapproval ratings as he lurched from controversy to controversy and crisis to crisis. All of it seemed to point to a likely first-round loss for Bolsonaro on Sunday — a correction of what critics hoped was a historical aberration.

But Bolsonaro again defied expectations.

Bolsonaro and Lula are heading to second round in Brazil election

Not only did he outperform the polls Sunday, winning 43 percent of the vote and a second round against rival Lula, but his allies made unexpected gains across the country. His party is now the largest in both houses of Congress. Candidates endorsed by Bolsonaro gained 14 seats in the Senate, a chamber previously hostile to the president. Lula allies won only eight.

In the crucial states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — together, home to a quarter of the population — allies showed similar strength. In Rio, Gov. Cláudio Castro won nearly 60 percent of the vote to defeat his leftist challenger. And in São Paulo, Lula’s home state, where former governor João Doria clashed frequently with Bolsonaro over his coronavirus response, the president’s candidate beat out Lula’s to gain the advantage heading into a second round.

“We already have what we need to liberate Brazil from authoritarianism, from the bribery and injustice that infuriates us,” Bolsonaro tweeted Monday. “A more profound change is already starting! It is the not people who should have fear.”

Instead of confirming Bolsonaro’s weakness, Sunday’s returns showcased his surprising strength. Brazil made clear that it isn’t racing back to the leftist policies and leaders that governed it before his rise to power.

What you need to know about Brazil’s election

“Bolsonarismo is strong and represents millions of Brazilians, rooting itself and spreading through Brazilian society,” said Federal University of São Paulo sociologist Esther Solano, who studies the president’s supporters. “Bolsonarismo has come to stay and could even go beyond Bolsonaro.”

The president still appears headed for defeat in the second round Oct. 30. Lula, who is seeking his third term as Brazilian president, beat Bolsonaro in the first round by more than 6 million votes, winning more than 48 percent of the electorate. He was only 2 million away from getting the 50 percent he needed to win outright in the first round. The polls, if they are to be believed, still project a second-round victory.

The country remains highly polarized, pulled between two political giants fired in part by personal and mutual enmity. But a majority of voters have consistently said they will not vote for Bolsonaro. His bellicose rhetoric, his dismissal of a pandemic that killed more than 686,000 Brazilians, his acts of political warfare on ideological opponents — all of it remains a handicap heading into the runoff.

But Lula’s movement and his supporters nonetheless sounded defeated as they reckoned with a Brazil they didn’t recognize and a result they hadn’t expected.

“I’ve already cried,” said Larissa Paglia, 28, on Avenida Paulista in São Paulo on Sunday night. “We weren’t expecting this result. Even if it is good for us, we weren’t expecting it.”

Historians were less surprised. Brazil has an international reputation for a certain libertine approach to life — Carnival, thong bikinis, the Brazilian wax job — but in truth this is a deeply conservative country where right-wing movements have long found a strong following by appealing to Christian values.

Bolsonaro vs. Lula: A referendum on Brazil’s young democracy

The proponents of Bolsonarismo — with its appeal to individual liberties and its valorization of the country’s vast, conservative interior — reflect much of that discourse, said Pedro Doria, a journalist and historian. In much the same way that former president Donald Trump tapped into historic sources of resentment in the United States, Bolsonaro found his base by channeling latent grievances and fears.

“These ideas are deeply rooted in Brazil,” he said. “Sometimes we believe these ideas are gone, but political thought is not something abstract that intellectuals paint in universities, but the ideas that people pass on to their children for what they think society should look like.”

“This conservative way of thinking runs deep in Brazil; it was never dead.”

Now the movement is poised to shape events in the country for years to come. Seven of Bolsonaro’s former cabinet members, some of whom implemented some of his most controversial policy initiatives, were elected to Congress.

One was former environment minister Ricardo Salles, who oversaw the dismantling of institutions that safeguarded the Amazon. Another was Eduardo Pazuello, who carried out Bolsonaro’s contrarian coronavirus policies at the health ministry. One more was Damares Alves, his minister of women, family and human rights, who spent much of her time in the position waging culture war battles.

In Mato Grosso state, Luiz Henrique Mandetta — a health minister who clashed with Bolsonaro over the president recommending unproven medications to treat the coronavirus — was defeated by one of Bolsonaro’s former and loyal ministers.

“Even if Bolsonaro loses, the movement he has led thus far will remain a powerful force,” said political scientist Matias Spektor, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. “It would curb a Lula administration’s ambitions because it would be able to block and make any move more difficult.”

The Brazilian right is now dominated by Bolsonarismo. What remained of the moderate right, said political analyst and columnist Fábio Zanini, was “decimated” in Sunday’s vote. Bolsonaro is the undisputed standard-bearer.

“He was able to repeat some of what he did in 2018,” he said. “He’s the guy that conservative Brazilians now look to as their representative.”

Pessoa reported from São Paulo. Paulina Villegas in Brasília contributed to this report.