A politician who has spoken favorably of torture and past military rule looks poised to change the direction of Brazil’s three-decade run of centrist democracy — with polls suggesting he could snatch victory in the first round of presidential elections tomorrow.
Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has expressed unabashed nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Latin America’s biggest economy from 1964 to 1985.
Frustration with traditional politicians, blamed for the country’s worst-ever recession, as well as rapacious corruption, have helped fuel Bolsonaro’s rise.
So too has his rhetoric promising an iron fist to crush chronic crime Brazilians face daily.
Yet he is also fiercely rejected by much of the electorate — particularly women and poor people — who fear the social upheaval he advocates.
The result is a nation deeply polarized.
And even if Bolsonaro, 63, walks away with a first-round victory, the game will be far from over. A likely Oct. 28 run-off between him and the next-ranked candidate is seen as too close to call.
Bolsonaro’s likely rival in that second round is Fernando Haddad, who has replaced the Workers’ Party jailed former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Haddad has accused part of Brazil’s elite of flocking to Bolsonaro’s “fascism.”
The presidential vote is part of a general election that will also choose new federal and state legislatures and state governors.
For many voters, Bolsonaro is the answer to the day-to-day insecurity they face in a country with the world’s highest number of murders — nearly 64,000 last year — and rampant robberies.
“Brazilians have really had enough of this violence,” said Ericky Tostes, a police officer who said he would vote for Bolsonaro. “I’ve lost count of the number of fallen in our ranks here in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and the number of funerals I’ve gone to of friends, of colleagues.”
Carlos Alberto da Silva, a 50-year-old taxi driver concurred.
“I’m for him. He’s in favor of castrating rapists, for posting the military at schools so teachers are given respect and aren’t assaulted in the classroom,” he said.
Some said that Bolsonaro was one of the rare politicians in the country to not be accused of graft.
However, other voters said they were sticking with Haddad because he incarnated Lula’s legacy of helping Brazil’s poor.
“Middle and lower-class people didn’t have good lives. We were living on the leftovers, and then we became recognized as citizens,” said a retiree, Malvina Joana de Lima.
“For me and students like me who got in through social programs giving access to university, the eight years of Lula’s government were the best in the history of the country,” said Artur Sampaio, a 25-year-old political science student.
Bolsonaro’s anti-crime stance and polling status got an unintended boost last month when he was the victim of a knife attack while campaigning. After leaving hospital last weekend following a three-week convalescence, he saw his support surge.
The latest surveys this week credit him with at least 31 percent of voter intentions, about 10 points ahead of Haddad.
The rallying to Bolsonaro sent Brazil’s stock market and money, the real, soaring as investors wagered on his pledge to cut the nation’s spiraling debt through privatizations and trimming the public sector payroll.
However, Capital Economics, a consultancy, said in a briefing note on Thursday that the uncertain final outcome of the presidential race meant the gains “are unlikely to be sustained.”
Bolsonaro has minimized traditional ways of appealing to voters, mostly refusing to talk to journalists and relying more on Brazilians’ addiction to Facebook and WhatsApp.
“If we lose the social networks, it’s over,” he said during one of his numerous live video feeds on Facebook, where he has 7 million followers.
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