Early exit polls in Brazil on Sunday boosted hopes among supporters of right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro that he could defy projections and win a first-round victory.
The fiery lawmaker has surged in opinion polls in the past week, and all major surveys suggested the race would go to a second-round runoff in what has become a referendum on Bolsonaro, a former army captain who praises dictatorships and vows a brutal crackdown on crime and graft.
However, Sunday exit polls suggested an even more dramatic swing. An Ibope exit poll for the Rio de Janeiro governor race showed former judge Wilson Witzel, a Bolsonaro ally, scoring a shock victory over former Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, suggesting earlier opinion surveys underestimated the electorate's deep-seated antipathy for the leftist Workers Party.
"Exit polls are showing a tsunami" in favor of Bolsonaro candidates, Murillo de Aragão, head of the Arko political risk firm in Brasilia, said on Twitter.
Exit polling on the presidential race will be released at 7 p.m. local time (2200 GMT), when voting stations in far western states close.
Bolsonaro, 63, was accompanied by a nurse as he cast his vote on Sunday, a month after a near-fatal stabbing at a campaign rally that required two emergency surgeries. He said he was confident he had the majority of valid votes necessary to clinch the race without a runoff vote on Oct. 28, avoiding a showdown with the leftist Workers Party (PT).
"If God is willing, we'll settle this today," he told reporters. "We are on an upward trajectory and are confident that the Brazilian people want to distance themselves from socialism."
An exit poll also showed one of Bolsonaro's closest aides, former police Major Olimpio Gomes, scoring a surprise win in the Senate race in Sao Paulo state. In Minas Gerais state, exit polls showed another Bolsonaro ally scoring an upset victory in the governor's race.
Bolsonaro is riding a wave of anger at the establishment over one of the world's largest political graft schemes and rising crime in the country with the most murders in the world. His supporters blame the PT, which ruled Brazil for 13 of the past 15 years, along with reckless economic policies that contributed to Brazil's worst recession in a generation.
Still, Brazil is split over the danger to democracy posed by Bolsonaro, a long-time congressman who advocates for torture and police violence, praises the country's 1964-85 military regime and suggested that opponents could only win the race through fraud, although he now vows to respect the electoral process.
Geneis Correa, 46, a business manager in Brasilia, said she voted for Bolsonaro and would support a coup if the PT wins, blaming the party for rampant corruption.
"If they win, it will become Venezuela. People will be hungry, with a currency that is worth nothing," she said, while leaving a polling station with her daughter. "If the PT is voted into power and there is a military intervention, I would support it."