Evangelical bishop leads Rio race in Brazilian polls


Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

An evangelical mega-church bishop who once branded Catholics demons was expected to become mayor of Rio de Janeiro on Sunday in nationwide municipal elections confirming Brazil's shift to the right.

Voting got underway at 1000 GMT across Brazil, after first round balloting on October 2 saw the nation's former governing Workers' Party humiliated. Results were expected in soon after closing at 1900 GMT.

The second round of the elections to city halls around Latin America's biggest country promised more bad news for the leftist Workers' Party of ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his successor Dilma Rousseff, who was removed in an impeachment trial in August.

Already in the first round the Workers' Party lost about two thirds of the mayor's posts it had won in 2012 elections, including Brazil's biggest city Sao Paulo. The biggest winner was the center-right PMDB party of new President Michel Temer.

Sunday's runoff elections where there was no outright winner in the first round featured a colorful battle for Rio's post-Olympics future between socialist Marcelo Freixo and evangelical Marcelo Crivella, from the Brazilian Republican Party (PRB).

Crivella, a bishop in the giant Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, founded by his billionaire uncle, had a strong lead in the polls, even if Freixo was closing in.

He has promised to bring law and order to Rio, a city that despite billions of dollars in investments for the Olympic Games this year is beset by high crime.

It also suffers from ramshackle infrastructure, including a lack of basic sanitation for many in the impoverished favela neighborhoods.

Evangelical politicians are advancing steadily nationwide, helped by disgust at revelations of systemic corruption among leading politicians and executives during the Workers' Party era. The evangelical message has also taken root among the poor, who might earlier have voted more along leftist lines.

Crivella however has had to work hard to distance himself from statements he made in a book he wrote in 1999 where he described Roman Catholics as "demonic" and claimed that Hindus drank their children's blood. The 59-year-old has also described homosexuality as evil and African religions as worshipping "evil spirits."

Freixo, 49, of the Socialism and Freedom Party, proposes socially liberal policies. He has won strong support from the city's cultural elite and pro-gay activists.

In the final days of campaigning Freixo made inroads on Crivella's huge lead, helped by leaked reports of scandals in the evangelist's past.

Although Brazil's evangelical movement portrays itself as a force for change in corrupt Brazil, spearheading Rousseff's impeachment, its leaders have themselves come under fire.

One of the chief leaders of the impeachment process was prominent evangelist Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of congress, who has since been arrested for allegedly taking millions of dollars in bribes.