Brazil's far-right candidate takes big lead in presidential election
October 7 at 6:34 PM
SAO PAULO, Brazil â" A staunch backer of President Trump took a commanding lead in Brazilâs presidential election on Sunday, raising the strong prospect of a far-right populist at the helm of Latin Americaâs largest nation.
Jair Bolsonaro â" a 63-year old former army captain whose unorthodox candidacy was laughed off by pundits only a year ago â" was riding a wave of indignation against a corrupt class of traditional politicians. With 71.5 percent of votes counted, Bolsonaro was capturing 48.1 percent of the vote. That figure put him on the cusp of surpassing the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff on Oct. 28 that most observers had seen as nearly inevitable. Even if a run off is triggered, he would be standing on the edge of a historic if divisive victory.
A Bolsonaro win â" either Sunday or later this month â" would mark a stunni ng march forward in the heart of Latin America for a burgeoning global movement of right-wing nationalists who have already captured presidencies in the United States, Eastern Europe countries and the Philippines. Bolsonaroâs strongman approach to politics and praise for the military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, has raised alarm bells among critics who fear he would move Brazil away from liberal democracy.
âWithout a big party, without funds, without television time, but with sincerity and truth, weâve taken down figures who thought that, by doing partnerships and deals with the large parties, through television, they would get elected,â Bolsonaro, who had said he wouldnât recognize the results if he didnât win, told reporters while voting in Rio de Janeiro.
Leftist Workersâ Party candidate Fernando Haddad, a 55-year old former mayor of Sao Paulo, was placing second in a crowded field of 13 hopefuls, winning 26.9 percent, with 71.5 percent of votes counted. Haddad is running as a stand-in for former president Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as he is widely known here. The former president is now behind bars on a corruption conviction and was barred from seeking office.
The campaign to lead Brazil has harbored echoes of the 2016 race for the White House, with Brazilians polarized over Bolsonaroâs legacy of incendiary remarks denigrating women, minorities and the LBGT community. Bolsonaro toned down his rhetoric as he sought to expand his appeal but has been targeted by critics in an online media campaign â" #elenao, or #nothim â" that has included the likes of global celebrities such as Madonna.
Brazilian Workers' Party presidential candidate Fernando Haddad talks with journalists Wednesday during a news conference in Sao Paulo. (NACHO DOCE/Reuters)
A seven-te rm congressmen who has praised Brazilâs military dictatorship, Bolsonaro has long loitered on Brazilâs political fringe. His path toward electability, experts say, has been paved by a failure of Brazilâs political classes: Large swaths of the elected elite have been deeply tarnished by corruption. In contrast, Bolsonaro is viewed as a relatively untainted outsider.
Some of his backers â" who include alt-right groups â" videoed themselves on Sunday casting electronic ballots for their candidate using the tips of guns. Yet, from the Amazon region â" where a backlash is brewing over a surge of Venezuelan migrants â" to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro was winning votes even among groups he has insulted.
His tactic has been to hammer down on the three issues Brazilians care about the most: the economy, corruption and a crime wave, which he has vowed to tackle with zero-tolerance.
âI voted for Bolsonaro because Iâm tired of politicians being the same,â said Maria Aparecida de Oliveira, a 63-year-old housekeeper casting her ballot in an upper-middle class district of Sao Paulo, Brazilâs largest city. âEven if he is a little crazy, someone needs to bring change.â
âBolsonaro is a strange phenomenon,â said Lucas de Aragao, director of Arko Advice, a political risk company in Brasilia. âItâs very hard to understand his movement, the why, the how. It doesnât have any precedent in Brazil. Even some Lula voters are turning to him. Itâs happened because Brazil loves this idea of a savior, of a hero. And Bolsonaro now represents this image of a savior as much as Lula does.â
Jair Bolsonaro, far-right lawmaker and presidential candidate, gestures after casting his vote in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)
Just a few years ago, Brazil saw a su rge of progressive policies under Lula, who, while president from 2003 to 2011, pushed through generous welfare programs and labor rights. He oversaw a commodities boom that lifted millions of poverty, and left office with a dizzying approval rating of 87 percent.
He was unable to transfer that popularity to his anointed successor â" Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla fighter who was impeached in 2016 for failing to follow arcane budget laws.
Lula vowed to win back the presidency this year, and shot to the top of the polls. But he became engulfed in a sweeping corruption probe involving political bribes. In April, he began serving a 12-year prison sentence.
From his jail cell, Lula picked Haddad to run in his place. A Lebanese-Brazilian economist and one-term mayor of Sao Paulo, he is shy and pragmatic, and seen as a shadow of the larger-than-life Lula.
Haddad has met with investors, but many still worry he would not pass the tough reforms seen as necess ary to avoiding another economic crisis here. Instead, they have swiftly backed Bolsonaro, and his liberal economic guru, the University of Chicago trained Paulo Guedes. And many Brazilians appeared to be supporting Bolsonaro out of fear of a Workersâ Party return.
Despite having same-sex marriage and quotas for minorities in universities, Brazil remains a socially conservative and religious nation. Bolsonaro has earned key support among an increasingly powerful group: evangelical voters.
Many of Bolsonaroâs core backers are also huge fans of Trump â" a leader with whom Bolsonaro shares striking parallels. Bolsonaro is a tough-talker whose strongest followers include bands of angry white men. He champions âtraditional valuesâ but has been married three times. He directly connects with his legions of followers via social media.
In August, Bolsonaroâs son â" Eduardo Bolsonaro, a 34-year old who operates as a political surrogate much in the way that Tru mpâs elder children do â" tweeted a photograph of himself in New York with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
âIt was a pleasure to meet STEVE BANNON, strategist in Donald Trumpâs presidential campaign,â Bolsonaroâs son tweeted in English. âWe had a great conversation and we share the same worldview. He [sic] said be an enthusiast of Bolsonaroâs campaign and we are certainly in touch to join forces, especially against cultural marxism.â
Yet Bolsonaro has been vague on the specific of his policies, largely implying them in fiery speeches. But he has vowed to crack down on the violent street gangs who control Brazilâs drug trade and loosen gun laws so civilians can fight fire with fire. He backs the free market but has signaled out Chinese investment â" saying he will work with Beijing, but that âwe will not hand our territory over to anybody.â
He has pledged to stop attempts to loosen strict abortion laws and has alarmed environmental ists by saying he would seek development in the Amazon.
Bolsonaroâs backers in far-right moments have cheered on his infamous political incorrectness for years. He once said a gay son was the product of not enough âbeatingsâ and told a female rival she was not worth raping because she was âtoo ugly.â Last year, he said some descendants of slaves were fat and lazy and has lavished praise on the former military dictatorship.
âHeâs anti-woman, heâs anti-black, heâs anti-gay,â said Juliana Prado, 39, a Sao Paulo resident who works in finance and voted on Sunday for Haddad.
âHeâs against everything,â she said.
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