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Americas

How this far-right presidential candidate polarised Brazil ahead of Sunday’s presidential vote

Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain prone to misogynist, homophobic and racist remarks, has expressed unabashed nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Latin America’s biggest economy between 1964 and 1985

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 1:28pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 9:18pm

A far-right politician who has spoken favourably 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 Sunday.

Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain prone to misogynist, homophobic and racist remarks, has expressed unabashed nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Latin America’s biggest economy between 1964 and 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 by women and the poor, who fear the social upheaval he advocates.

The result is a country deeply polarised.

And even if Bolsonaro, 63, walks away with a first-round victory, the game will be far from over. A likely October 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 leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, who has replaced the Workers’ Party jailed former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, declared ineligible. Haddad has accused part of Brazil’s elite of flocking to Bolsonaro’s “fascism”.

The presidential vote is part of a general election Sunday 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 told AFP 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 favour of castrating rapists, for posting the military at schools so teachers are given respect and aren’t assaulted in the classroom,” he said.

Some emphasised that Bolsonaro was one of the rare politicians in the country to not be accused of corruption.

But 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 recognised as citizens,” said a retiree, Malvina Joana de Lima.

“For me and students like me who got in through social programmes 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 per cent of voter intentions, around 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 country’s spiralling debt through privatisation and trimming the public sector payroll.

Yet Capital Economics, a consultancy, warned 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 meanwhile minimised 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 seven million followers.

That tactic has overcome one of the main limitations he faced: being restricted to TV ads of no more than eight seconds under election rules apportioning screen time relative to the size of a candidate’s party in Congress.

Bolsonaro’s right-wing Social Liberal Party has just eight representatives in the 513-seat lower chamber – and might at best pick up only a couple more in Sunday’s general election, underscoring the legislative challenge he would face if he ended up running Brazil. s