The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro boosts funding for poor, still trails in presidential race

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives in Brasilia on Sept. 7 to preside over a military parade commemorating the bicentennial of the country's independence from Portugal. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

With Brazilians struggling with double-digit inflation and an election just weeks away, President Jair Bolsonaro swung into action.

The right-wing populist has cut fuel taxes to reduce prices at the pump and sent monthly cash transfers to poor families. He has created cash benefits for truck and taxi drivers and dispensed $20 to families in need to buy gas cylinders for cooking.

In recent weeks, energy prices have stabilized, inflation has declined and employment has grown. But it might not be enough to save Bolsonaro’s job.

Recent polls by Datafolha and IPEC show Bolsonaro, 67, still trailing his principal rival in the October election — former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 76 — by more than 10 percentage points. When the field is reduced to a head-to-head matchup, the gap widens.

“Voters are saying, ‘Too little, too late,’ ” said Thomas Traumann, a journalist, consultant and former spokesman for former president Dilma Rouseff.

“After three years of Bolsonaro,” he said, “people are distrustful of his intentions and many of them believe this is all just maneuvering for the election.”

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Bolsonaro, a former army officer, was a fringe congressman pursuing a long-shot bid for the presidency in 2018 when Lula, the presumed front-runner, was imprisoned on corruption charges.

Bolsonaro ran against graft in a country roiled by scandals and suffering from a stagnant economy. Rouseff was impeached for allegedly violating budget rules. Her successor, Michel Temer, was accused of accepting bribes and money laundering. And scores of officials in Brazil and across Latin America were implicated in the Oderbrecht scandal, in which the Brazilian construction giant allegedly paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes.

Bolsonaro tapped into anti-establishment frustration to manage one of the great election upsets in Latin America’s largest country.

But now Lula is out of prison, his conviction annulled, and Bolsonaro is struggling, unable to overcome the scars caused by his chaotic handling of the coronavirus and the multiple corruption investigations into his own administration.

At the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro dismissed covid-19 as a “little flu” and promoted the unproven and possibly harmful remedy hydroxychloroquine. He has expressed skepticism of vaccines — he suggested they could cause women to grow beards and turn people into crocodiles — in a country that has embraced them. Brazil has recorded more than 34.5 million cases and 684,000 deaths. Both are presumed to be undercounts.

Surveys show that more than 40 percent of Brazilians rate Bolsonaro’s administration as “bad” or “very bad.”

He has tried to win voters back with government spending. In August, he began giving $120 monthly cash payments to 20 million families through Auxilio Brasil — Brazil Aid.

Floundering in the polls, Brazil’s Bolsonaro woos a surprising new demographic: The poor

Jorciely Carvalho, a 28-year-old street vendor in São Paulo, says government assistance since the start of the pandemic has helped her family cover the basics.

But as food prices skyrocketed this year — milk, for instance, has gone up 79 percent in the past 12 months — life has become more challenging for Carvalho, her husband and her 3-year-old daughter. She can no longer cover the cost of the ingredients she needs to sell desserts, her second job.

Bolsonaro, she said, is an “incompetent person who has made a terrible government for the most needy in our country,” and she will not vote for him.

The race has tightened, a bit. Datafolha recorded a five-point narrowing from June to this month. But with the first round of the election set for Oct. 2, and polls showing most Brazilians have made up their minds, time might be running out for Bolsonaro.

“This election has been a battle of rejections, and it seems like the people are rejecting Bolsonaro more resoundingly,” said Mauricio Moura, founder of the polling firm IDEIA Big Data. “The financial aid provided by Bolsonaro is just not enough to minimize much negative feelings about the overall economic environment.”

If no candidate achieves a majority in the first-round vote, the top two will face off in a second round on Oct. 30.

Lula, a former union leader, was president for two terms from 2003 through 2010, when his social programs, funded largely by a regional commodities boom, helped lift millions out of poverty. Attorney Marco Aurelio Carvalho, a top adviser to Lula, said his “comfortable” lead reflects the recognition that Brazilians “now live in a very different country” than the one he left.

“Now we are a pariah,” Carvalho said. He said Bolsonaro’s aggressive and often profane manner, and his attacks on women and journalists, have left the population “tired of this war.”

Bolsonaro’s chief of staff disputes the polls. Ciro Nogueira said internal surveys commissioned by the center-right Progressives Party show a much tighter race, and he’s confident Bolsonaro will take the lead “within the next 10 days.”

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Nogueira acknowledged the president inspires a high “rejection” rate, and said it’s because he’s an “unconventional politician who expresses a lot of what he thinks.” He touted what he called “an unprecedented economic success,” with inflation falling and unemployment at its lowest level in at least five years.

Bolsonaro has attempted to court women, who make up 52 percent of eligible voters. But given his history of misogynist remarks, it has been a challenge.

As a congressman, he once told a fellow legislator that she was not worthy of being raped. During the first televised debate in the current campaign, the journalist Vera Magalhães asked about the country’s coronavirus vaccination rate.

“I think you go to sleep thinking about me,” Bolsonaro responded. “You have a crush on me.”

Bolsonaro has increasingly relied on his wife to help soften his image. First lady Michelle Bolsonaro has campaigned more actively in recent weeks, attending rallies and making television appearances.

She has brought her own flair to the contest. She recently shared a video that showed Lula, a Christian, at an African-derived religious ritual and alleged he was connected with “the underworld.” She has said the presidential palace was “overtaken by demons” during previous administrations before it was consecrated on her husband’s watch.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.