BRAZIL, Oct 27 – Brazil elects its next president Sunday in a run-off that looks all but guaranteed for far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army captain nostalgic for the country’s military dictatorship.
Coming on the heels of a punishing recession and mind-boggling corruption scandal, the sprawling South American country’s elections have thrown up a spectacular cast of characters, even by the standards of these divisive, anti-establishment times.
Facing Bolsonaro, 63, is leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, 55, a former Sao Paulo mayor who is standing in for jailed ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, founder of the Workers’ Party.
Lula, who led Brazil through the boom years of 2003 to 2010, remains its most popular politician, despite being accused of masterminding the massive pilfering of state oil company Petrobras. But the hugely divisive ex-leader was barred from running because he is serving a 12-year prison sentence.
As for Bolsonaro, he has churned out enough politically incorrect vitriol to earn himself the nickname “Tropical Trump” — which may actually be an understatement.
He has said the “mistake” made by Brazil’s brutal military regime (1964-1985) was that it tortured, instead of killing, leftist dissidents and suspected sympathizers.
He once said a female lawmaker he opposed was “not worth raping.”
And he has gone out of his way to denigrate gay and black people.
– Incendiary rise –
The incendiary rhetoric only appears to have boosted his numbers.
He won the first-round election on October 7 with 46 percent of the vote.
And in a final opinion poll published Thursday, he led Haddad by 56 percent to 44 — though that was a narrower gap than the week before, when Bolsonaro had an 18-point lead.
Running for the formerly minor Social Liberal Party, Bolsonaro is, according to many political analysts, a symptom of the crises ailing Brazil since the Workers’ Party’s 13 years in power came crashing to an end with the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff in 2016.
Among those crises: Brazil’s economy shrank nearly seven percent during its worst-ever recession, from 2015 to 2016; the multi-billion-dollar Petrobras scandal has left voters disgusted with the seemingly bottomless corruption of politicians and business executives; and there is widespread outrage over violent crime, in a country that registered a record 63,880 murders last year.
Outgoing President Michel Temer, himself implicated in corruption, is set to leave office on January 1 as the most unpopular president in Brazil’s modern democracy.
Vowing to restore order with a firm hand, Bolsonaro has ridden a wave of widespread exasperation among Brazil’s 147 million voters.
“He’s capitalized on the very strong current of discontent with the Workers’ Party and corrupt politicians in general,” says David Fleischer, a political scientist at the University of Brasilia.
“He has successfully sold himself as an anti-establishment candidate,” despite the fact that he has been in Congress for 27 years.
– Turn to ‘fascism’? –
Haddad, who was education minister under Lula, has struggled to unite opposition to Bolsonaro, despite mounting warnings that the former army officer would endanger democracy.
The most recent came in an “International declaration against fascism in Brazil,” signed by a long list of ex-world leaders, public intellectuals and celebrities who condemned Bolsonaro’s “xenophobic, racist misogynist and homophobic values.”
The ideologically mixed group of signatories included former presidents Francois Hollande of France and Vicente Fox of Mexico, American actor Danny Glover and ex-US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Bolsonaro has only doubled down in recent days, vowing to “cleanse” Brazil of leftist “reds” — including both Lula and Haddad, who he said “will rot in jail.”
He has waged his campaign almost entirely from social media, after being knifed in the stomach by an attacker at a campaign rally in September.
Rejecting Haddad’s calls to debate, saying his doctors advised against it, he has waged an all-out war on Facebook, where he has eight million followers.
Haddad, whose campaign slogan is to make Brazil “happy again” — as in Lula’s poverty-fighting golden days — ultimately ended up pulling his mentor’s image from his campaign ads.
Bolsonaro has, crucially, done a better job convincing the business world that he is the face of real change for Brazil’s troubled economy, tapping US-trained liberal economist Paulo Guedes as his top economic advisor.
But he would have to govern with a divided and discredited Congress, in which the Workers’ Party remains a major force.