Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate who won 46 per cent of the vote in the first round of Brazil’s election on Oct. 7, doubled down on his hardline positions on Monday, a sign that the next three weeks of campaigning will likely be a bitter fight that will deepen the sharp polarization in Latin America’s largest country.
Mr. Bolsonaro, a long-time member of Brazil’s congress and a former army captain who campaigned on a pledge to restore public security and crush “a leftist scourge,” said in a radio interview that he would not become “little peace-and-love Jair,” in the second-round campaign, but would “continue being myself.”
The peace-and-love line was a mocking poke at former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who softened his left-wing rhetoric in his own first successful bid for office in 2002. Mr. Bolsonaro used the rest of the interview to reiterate his disdain for gay rights, dismiss the suggestion that he was a misogynist (he once called a congressional colleague “too ugly to rape”) and pledge to demolish his adversary in the Oct. 28 runoff vote, Workers' Party candidate Fernando Haddad.
Mr. Haddad, a former philosophy professor, education minister and mayor of Sao Paulo, became a candidate just one month ago, an 11th-hour stand-in for Mr. da Silva, who was barred from running because he is serving a 12-year prison sentence for graft. Mr. Haddad won 29 per cent of the vote on Sunday; only one of a roster of centrist candidates who managed to surpass single-digit support.
“Haddad has a chance, but it is quite small, and he cannot make any mistakes during the next three weeks,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of political science at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a prestigious university in Sao Paulo. The Workers' Party is in the grips of a power struggle between its hard-left and more moderate factions, and Mr. Haddad’s campaign will be controlled by one or the other, he said − and only with a no-holds-barred appeal to the centre can Mr. Haddad hope to win. “He is a moderate, but the big question is whether the party allows him to project that moderate image,” Prof. Stuenkel added.
Mr. Haddad would need to do two things, immediately, in order to stand any chance of winning, said Monica de Bolle, a Brazil expert and director of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He would need to present a centrist economic platform, naming a future finance minister who will inspire market confidence, she said, in order to win back voters who dislike Mr. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian tendencies, but mistrust the Workers' Party handling of the economy. And he must make a sweeping mea culpa for the party’s past mistakes, something he was not permitted to do in the first round − including a pledge that he will not interfere with the graft probe known as Lava Jato.
“He needs to say, ‘Yes, we were culprits in this massive corruption scandal; we deeply, deeply regret what happened to Brazil, but we need to move on,’ ” she said. “Haddad is a smart guy, and I’m sure he’s thinking to himself, ‘I should do this and do that,’ but he’s constrained – his party is trying to think how it survives and the longer it takes them, the more space it gives the Bolsonaro camp.”
Mr. Haddad flew on Monday to the southern city of Curitiba to visit Mr. da Silva, the party’s founder and still one of the country’s most beloved figures, in jail. But Mr. Haddad mentioned Mr. da Silva only once in his subsequent interview.
“Bolsonaro has been so successful because he was the first to realize that this would be a ‘change election,’ and he has systematically adopted an anti-system rhetoric, allowing him to mobilize people who wanted a more radical change,” Prof. Stuenkel said.
He, like most analysts in Brazil today, warned that voters do not seem to fully grasp the degree of change that a Bolsonaro presidency portends: “I think Brazil’s democracy is in serious danger," he said. "Bolsonaro is far more radical than [U.S. President Donald] Trump, and Brazil’s institutions are weaker. Bolsonaro is openly anti-democratic, denigrates minorities and several of his supporters may take his victory as an authorization to attack [verbally or physically] their opponents,” he said. Mr. Bolsonaro has already said repeatedly that he “will not accept” any electoral outcome other than his own victory.
Mr. Bolsonaro was propelled to his first-round win with the help of Brazil’s enormously influential evangelical Christian churches, which love his virulently homophobic rhetoric and emphasis on “traditional” gender roles. He also had the backing of much of the private sector (because he favours drastic pro-market reforms, including swift privatization of state firms and services). Brazil’s currency and stock exchanges surged on opening on Monday.
The high-profile presidential race, however, may in the long-run pale in comparison to the significance of what happened in congress. Mr. Bolsonaro’s previously obscure Social Liberal Party jumped from eight seats to 51, as part of a major shift to the right. The evangelical caucus picked up many seats, as did the agro-industry lobby, which wants to shut down Brazil’s already badly weakened environmental protection agency, and reduce or cancel Indigenous land designations, opening much more of the Amazon rain forest to logging and mining.
Even if Mr. Haddad pulls off a stunning come-from-behind win, it’s questionable how he would manage to govern with a legislature where he had so few allies. While his party won 57 seats, the single largest number in the lower house, it’s nowhere near enough to get laws through the 518-member chamber, and he would find limited numbers of allies interested in joining a coalition.