SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Brazilians vote Sunday in a surreal election in which Jair Bolsonaro — an ex-army captain dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” by the British press — is leading in the polling and gaining momentum. Bolsonaro or any of the other 12 presidential candidates need more than 50 percent of the vote for an outright win. Pollsters give Bolsonaro a roughly 30 percent chance of snagging such a victory. But the election will likely go a conclusive second round Oct. 28, with the top two vote-getters in a dogfight. Brazilians on Sunday will also cast votes for 27 state governors seats, two-thirds of the seats in the 81-member senate and all 513 seats in the lower chamber.
What’s the big takeaway?
Right-wing anti-globalists sit inside the White House and presidential palaces in Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary and other nations. A win for Bolsonaro — either Sunday or later this month — would mark a stunning victory for the burgeoning movement in Latin America. It would also deal a massive blow to the region’s left, and represent the rise of the most radically conservative politician in Brazil since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. The latest poll, by the credible Datafolha firm, shows Bolsonaro with 39 percent support, the leftist Workers’ Party Candidate Fernando Haddad with 25 percent and center-left candidate Ciro Gomes with 13 percent.
Who is Jair Bolsonaro and how did he become the front-runner?
The 63-year-old seven-term congressmen — who’s running mate is a retired general — has been a fixture on the fringes of Brazil’s political scene for decades. His backers in military circles and alt-right moments have cheered on his infamous political incorrectness. He once said a gay son was the product of not enough “beatings” and told a female rival she was not worth raping because she was “too ugly.” Last year, he said some descendants of slaves were fat and lazy and has lavished praise on the former military dictatorship.
Yet, particularly this year, Bolsonaro has toned down his rhetoric and risen well beyond fringe support — a direct result of a traditional political class that is now seen as tarnished by corruption. Bolsonaro, in contrast, is viewed as a relatively untainted outsider. He has made strides — even among voter groups he has insulted — by hammering down on the three issues Brazilians care most about: The economy, security and corruption.
In September, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen while campaigning in southeastern Brazil. A 40-year-old man snaked his way through a crowd at a rally and plunged a knife into Bolsonaro, who was waving to the crowd on the shoulders of supporters. Bolsonaro was airlifted from a local hospital to São Paulo, where he underwent multiple surgeries.
Is Bolsonaro really like Trump?
Let us count the ways.
Bolsonaro is a tough-talker accused of denigrating women and minorities and whose core followers include bands of angry white men. He curries favor with evangelical Christians and champions “traditional values,” but has been married three times. He directly connects with his legions of followers via social media. Bolsonaro says he will labor to make his country “great” and calls his rivals “scum.”
In August, Bolsonaro’s son — Eduardo Bolsonaro, who operates as a political surrogate much in the way that Trump’s elder children do — tweeted a photograph from New York City former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
“It was a pleasure to meet STEVE BANNON, strategist in Donald Trump's presidential campaign,” Bolsonaro’s son, a Brazilian congressman, tweeted in English. “We had a great conversation and we share the same worldview. He [sic] said be an enthusiast of Bolsonaro's campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural Marxism.”
So what would Bolsonaro do if elected?
Since being stabbed, Bolsonaro has sat out debates, making it even harder to pin him down on policies. He has largely inferred them rather than precisely laid them out. But, in general, he wants to make life miserable for the violent street gangs who control Brazil’s drug trade, loosen gun laws so that civilians can arm themselves, embrace more free-market reforms and stop attempts to loosen strict abortion laws. He has alarmed environmentalists by saying he would cease to protect indigenous lands and potentially wants to see large scale development in the Amazon jungle.
Wait. Isn’t this the same country where Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the darling of the global left, was a wildly popular two term president?
Yes. It may seem like eons ago, but Lula — who former president Barack Obama once dubbed “the most popular politician on earth” — left office in 2011 after being credited with lifting millions out of poverty. His anointed successor, Dilma Rousseff, was not nearly as loved and was impeached in 2016 on arcane charges of violating budget laws. Lula has since been jailed on charges related to a massive probe involving bribes paid by construction and other companies to politicians. He claims the allegations were politically motivated to stop him from running for the presidency again this year — a race in which he would have been the odds-on favorite. Barred from running under Brazilian election laws, he has anointed a far less known stand-in to represent the Workers Party, Haddad.
So who are the other candidates in the race?
The only other two candidates considered by pollsters to have a real shot are Haddad and Ciro, as Gomes is known in Brazil, where candidates often go by their first name.
And assuming the polls are right, Haddad is the most likely to face Bolsonaro in a possible runoff. Haddad was mayor of Sao Paulo for one term before losing his reelection bid amid dismal approval ratings.
Running under the slogan “Lula is Haddad,” he hopes to tap into nostalgia for the economic boom Brazil saw during the 2000s. But financial markets have widely rejected Haddad as investors are dubious he will be able to pass the austerity reforms needed to avoid a feared fiscal crisis.
And what about Ciro Gomes?
Polling third is Ciro Gomes, an outspoken member of the center-left Democratic Labor Party, who has said he would reform the country’s overburdened pension system and support the ongoing corruption investigation that has tarnished dozens of the country’s top politicians. He has also vowed to raise taxes on the wealthiest Brazilians and reverse privatization of the country’s oil fields. Initially expected to carry the country’s center-left vote, Gomes’s poll numbers have stagnated.