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Far-Right Candidate Widens Lead in Brazil’s Presidential Race

RIO DE JANEIRO — In the last days of Brazil’s splintered and divisive presidential race, most of the 13 candidates stumped across the country, sparring in debates and broadcasting attack ads in a last-ditch bid for votes.

But Jair Bolsonaro, the populist, far-right candidate leading the pack, spent much of the final stretch in a hospital bed, convalescing from a near-fatal stabbing, occasionally posting selfies and shaky videos in which he looked feeble and groggy. His near-disappearance from the political stage only increased his lead: polls suggest Mr. Bolsonaro will trounce opponents in the election on Sunday.

His success has defied the laws of political gravity. Until recently, Mr. Bolsonaro was a provocateur on the fringes of power who accomplished little as a seven-term lawmaker, but made headlines by calling for a military dictatorship and verbally attacking women, gays and people of color — in a country that is mostly nonwhite.

Until early August, he did not even have a running mate because traditional parties and politicians found him toxic.

But much like President Trump and populist leaders around the world, Mr. Bolsonaro has tapped into a deep well of resentment at the political establishment. He channeled Brazilians’ anger over staggering levels of corruption and crime, presenting himself as the only candidate tough enough to solve them.

“Brazilians want a hero,” said Daniel Machado, a professor of political marketing, referring to Mr. Bolsonaro’s vow to take radical measures to fix Brazil.

Millions of voters see his inflammatory positions — he has called women ignorant, told a female lawmaker she was too ugly to rape and questioned why women should earn the same salary as men — as straight talk from a man who is not afraid to say, and do, what is needed.

Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to confront the violence that killed a record 62,517 people in 2016 by making guns easier to obtain and by giving the police greater authority to kill. One of the candidate’s sons recently posted a photo simulating the torture of an opponent. Mr. Bolsonaro’s running mate, a retired general, has said a military intervention may be the only way to purge the country of its corrupt political system.

“We need to break that system together,” Mr. Bolsonaro, 63, told followers earlier this week during one of his daily live videos on Facebook.

A year ago, most power brokers in Brazil regarded Mr. Bolsonaro’s presidential bid as fanciful, deeming him too incendiary to take the helm of the world’s fourth largest democracy. Veteran political strategists and analysts thought his appeal would ebb as the campaign season officially kicked off in August.

After all, Mr. Bolsonaro is also the most reviled contender in the field, with a 45 percent disapproval rate. But as Election Day approaches, centrist candidates with larger war chests and robust networks of support are seeing their political base drift toward Mr. Bolsonaro.

His popularity only grew after he was stabbed while being carried by supporters during a political rally in September. The assailant told police officers at the scene that he was carrying out “an order from God,” which led investigators to question his mental health. But the attack played into Mr. Bolsonaro’s message about the need to get tough on crime, analysts said.

And now that he is the established front-runner, powerful political players — including Edir Macedo, an evangelical pastor and television magnate, the powerful agribusiness coalition in Congress and market-minded elites — have pledged their support.

Detractors say they see authoritarian tendencies in Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who has vowed to appoint generals to several prominent posts and has spoken with admiration of the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985.

“If we are to take seriously the things that Bolsonaro has said in the campaign, in my opinion Brazil’s democracy is in grave peril,” said Lilia Schwarcz, a prominent Brazilian author and historian who teaches at the University of São Paulo.

But many of his backers argue that he represents the only way to defeat the most powerful and corrupt presence on the Brazilian political scene in recent years — the leftist Workers’ Party, which governed from 2003 to 2016.

When the presidential race got underway, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a charismatic former metal worker and founding member of the Workers’ Party, was the front-runner by a wide margin. Many Brazilians, particularly the poor and the working class in this deeply unequal country, identify with Mr. da Silva personally and long for the prosperity they experienced during his tenure. He stepped down in 2011 with record-high approval ratings.

Since then, the party’s standing has slipped. Mr. da Silva’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, oversaw the deepest recession in Brazil’s history. She was impeached in 2016 for obscuring a budget deficit.

And Mr. da Silva — like many of Brazil’s most prominent politicians — became embroiled in the sprawling Lava Jato, or Carwash, investigation into corruption that took place during his time in office. After he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and money laundering, the courts ruled that he could not run for office.

So less than a month before Election Day, the Workers’ Party officially nominated Fernando Haddad, a former education minister and mayor of São Paulo, betting that Mr. da Silva’s base would transfer its allegiance to him. This was effective enough to push Mr. Haddad — a 55-year-old economist, lawyer and history professor with little national name recognition — into second place in the polls.

The matchup between Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Haddad has crystallized a bitter societal divide in Brazil that has widened in recent years amid the economic woes and public disgust at bribery schemes that tainted much of the political and business elite.

While foes see a Bolsonaro presidency as potentially catastrophic for the country’s young democracy, his supporters warn that returning the Workers’ Party to power would put Brazil on the type of ruinous path that has engulfed neighboring Venezuela.

“I lived through the era of the dictatorship and not even then did I witness so much hate, so much division, so much aggression,” said Clara Strauss, 79, during a recent demonstration against Mr. Bolsonaro. “It’s not characteristic of Brazilians.”

Roughly 77 percent of Brazilians regard their government as widely corrupt, according to a Gallup poll released in September. The poll, which surveyed 1000 people and has a margin of error of 3.6 percent, found that Brazilians are deeply skeptical of the integrity of electoral system, with only 14 percent saying they believe elections are honest.

Brazilians are distrustful of more than just politicians. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro has sowed skepticism and at times outright hostility toward the press. He has dismissed critical stories — including investigations into his real estate holdings and a messy divorce — as “fake news.” That approach has resonated with many Brazilians who see large news organizations as beholden to the elite.

Karine Neder, 45, an interior designer from Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state, said she started leaning toward Mr. Bolsonaro as media coverage of him became increasingly negative in recent months. She became a fervent admirer as Mr. Bolsonaro vowed to take drastic measures to restore security, like tougher prison sentences.

“We live in a country where you can’t watch the national news at night without being afraid of going to work the next day,” she said after attending a rally for the candidate in Rio de Janeiro.

While rivals enjoyed considerably more free airtime on television — which is allocated according to a political party’s size — and spent heavily on polished ads, Mr. Bolsonaro proved very adept at using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to reach voters.

“He had the time and this new, unfettered space to occupy the collective imagination,” Mr. Machado, the professor of political marketing, said.

Bolsonaro fans created hundreds of group chats on the messaging app WhatsApp, which has become a prodigious channel to spread misinformation during elections in Latin America.

Mr. Bolsonaro is considered a conservative for his hard-line approach to security, his staunch opposition to abortion rights and his disdain for the type of affirmative action initiatives the Workers’ Party created to chip away at Brazil’s steep inequality.

But how he would manage the economy — the world’s eighth largest — remains unclear.

Mr. Bolsonaro and his surrogates have offered few detailed policy prescriptions and have backed contradictory positions on central issues, such as whether large state enterprises should be privatized.

The policy blueprint on his campaign website is heavy on exclamation marks and short on details. “Our strategy will be to adopt the same actions that work in countries that are booming, with jobs, low inflation, wages for workers and opportunity for all,” his policy document proclaims.

Mr. Bolsonaro has reacted with exasperation when interviewers have pressed him for details on how he would handle the economy, which is only now emerging from the recession.

“I’m an artillery captain,” he barked during a recent televised interview on the Globo News network. “Why would I talk about the economy?”

Many experts see him as ill equipped to tackle complex challenges that will ultimately need to be addressed, including pension and tax reform.

“The military, when they took power in ‘64, and established a dictatorship, had a plan,” said Heloísa Starling, a historian at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “We may have disagreed with it, but they had a plan. He doesn’t have a plan for the country.”

But that has not fazed investors. They appear to have faith that Paulo Guedes, a University of Chicago-educated economist whom Mr. Bolsonaro has said he would appoint as finance minister, would push market-friendly reforms and rein in the social spending that mushroomed under the Workers’ Party. As Mr. Bolsonaro has surged in the polls, markets have rallied, with stocks and the real currency rebounding.

As a Bolsonaro victory has appeared increasingly likely, ardent opponents have rallied online and in the streets under the motto #EleNão, or Not Him. But the demonstrations have not dented his support, which has left many of those who ardently oppose him feeling despondent.

“We used to think that rights that have been conquered were rights that had been consolidated,” said Ms. Schwarcz, the historian. “I’ve concluded that we were being foolish. We must continue fighting for them.”

Source: NYT > World

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