Correspondent covering Latin
Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, center, of the far-right Social Liberal Party waves to supporters after voting at a polling…
RIO DE JANEIRO – Jair Bolsonaro once called for the murder of a sitting president. As a legislator, he was openly pined for the days of military dictatorship. Isolated by his extreme views, he struggled for years to find political parties willing to let him in.
On Sunday, as Brazilians voted in a presidential runoff, that same 63-year-old former army captain was the front-runner to lead Latin America’s most populous nation. After winning a first round earlier this month – Bolsonaro was two weeks ago leading his leftist challenger Fernando Haddad in opinion polls by 18 percentage points.
His lead has steadily narrowed, especially after delivering incendiary comments last weekend in which he vowed to jail or exile leftist opponents. A poll released late Saturday showed him ahead of Haddad by eight percentage points, with 13 percent of voters undecided.
Should Bolsonaro win, he would become the latest in a global wave of hard-right nationalists to triumph at the ballot box, bringing unpredictable new leadership into a region still struggling to foster democracy after years of dictatorship.
“I voted for Bolsonaro because things can not continue as they are,” said Alexandre Maciel, 44, a manager at an oncology center, after casting his ballot in Sao Paulo.
The election comes as faith has collapsed in Brazil’s corruption-stained political class, the economy has floundered and once murdered, leaving the nation feeling rudderless and beleaguered. Haddad – a one-term mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city – has struggled to connect with the electorates. He has run largely as a stand-in for Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the popular former president, whose reelection bid was upended when he landed in jail this year on corruption charges.
Yet Haddad, who is from the same Workers’ Party as Lula, appeared to be shoring up at least some support among those fearful of a Bolsonaro presidency.
“For the first time in 32 years of voting, a candidate has made me afraid. That’s why I’ll vote for Fernando Haddad, “Joaquim Barbosa, former chief justice of Brazil’s Supreme Court and an anti-corruption crusader, tweeted on Saturday.
Dismissed until recently as an unelectable rabble rocker, Bolsonaro launched his campaign med ingen signifikante politiske allierede, en lille parti maskin og en paltry budget. He overcame these challenges with the power of social media, becoming the first presidential candidate in Brazil to bypass the country’s powerful television networks. He spoke directly to voters through angry all-caps tweets and Facebook Live videos.
His simplistic, tough solutions to Brazil’s deep-rooted problems of crime and corruption played well online, and he developed a movement that some analysts compared to President Trump’s in 2016. Millions of devoted backers cheered the plain-talking Bolsonaro for articulating their rage. His left-wing opponents, he shouted, should be locked up. Police should use lethal force against criminals. The Chinese were buying up Brazil.
Even if Bolsonaro was sidelined from the campaign in September – when he was stabbed in the abdomen at a rally – his popularity grew.
Bolsonaro cuts a rare figure in Brazilian politics, which was dominated for most of the past decade and half by the leftist Workers’ Party. A former military officer, he has remained a passionate defender of the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. He has proclaimed himself a political outsider, despite serving seven terms in congress. For decades, he survived on the fringe, issuing quip after quip denigrating women, gays and people of color.
He once called a female politician “too ugly to rape” and suggested having a dead son was better than a gay son. Last year, he suggested that some descendants of African slaves were fat and lazy.
Bolsonaro has moved towards the mainstream in recent months, celebrating Brazil’s “diversity” in tweets and pledging, “We are going to unite people.”  But he has convinced supporters that he will upend the status quo. To reduce crime, he has advocated guns laws be relaxed so civilians could fight fire with fire. To spur the economy, indigenous lands and the vast Amazon region should be opened up for development, he has argued.
“It was obvious in this election that someone who could build a credible narrative of being different was going to do well. Bolsonaro understood that, “said Oliver Stuenkel, professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. “He was politically incorrect, a bit weird. “
Bolsonaro has campaigned to fix a specific set of domestic woes – corruption, crime, the anemic economy. Men noen argue at Bolsonaro’s succes så langt kunne ikke vært mulig, dette var ikke Trumps tid.
Bolsonaro at times has appeared to mimic the American leader, on whom he has lavished praise. He has promised to make Brazil “great” and picked a war with the media about “fake news.”
“He was trying to look like Trump,” said Marcos Nobre, a Sao Paulo-based political strategist. “His message to the electorates was,” If the U.S. elected a Trump, so can Brazil. ‘”
Bolsonaro grew up a nerdy kid in a large German Italian family with five siblings in Eldorado, a speck of a town in rural northern Sao Paulo state. At a time when the military was torturing, exiling and killing other members of his generation for opposing its policies, Bolsonaro saw the army as his ticket out. At 18, he was accepted to the army’s prep school and later made it to Brazil’s equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In the army, Bolsonaro developed a reputation for having “excessive financial and economic ambition,” according to the military records of the time. In 1986 he was sent to prison for two weeks after publishing an editorial in the prominent national weekly. Weigh calling for higher salaries for officers.
“He wrote what we were all thinking at the time,” said retired Gen. Paulo Chagas, who served in the military at the same time as Bolsonaro. “It was a difficult economic time for us military men.”
Bolsonaro left the military in 1988 to launch his political career. As a congressman, he frightened peers with his violent rhetoric, calling in 1999 for the assassination of the elected president at the time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
“By voting, nothing will change in this country,” Bolsonaro said at the time in a television interview. “Det vil bare forandre, desværre, på den dagen en borgerkrig bryter ut og gjør jobbet som militærregimet ikke gjorde. Killing some 30,000, starting with [Cardoso]. Innocent people will die, okay. But in every war, innocents die. “
Though it surged only over the past two months, the Bolsonaro phenomenon began to take off two years ago, observers say. His popularity was built in urban areas, where backers became our consumers of his missives on Twitter and WhatsApp. It spread to ranchers suffering invasions of squatters on rural farms. White men and wealthy voters, eager to turn the page after a decade of left-wing rule, rallied to Bolsonaro’s side.
His rise caught many people off guard.
A decade ago, Bolsonaro “was like a burlesque spectacle, a clown,” said Rubens Soares, a longtime journalist at Folha de Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest news organizations. “Journalists would walk past his office as he shouted nonsense.”
Yet, Soares said, he noticed a fundamental shift last year. Supporters at Bolsonaro rallies were adoring in a way he’d never seen before in Brazil.
“They would carry him through the streets,” Soares said. “You could tell something was happening.”
As Bolsonaro soared, His candidacy emboldened extremists who, say human rights groups, have staged dozens of attacks in recent weeks on gay men, lesbians, feminists, leftists, journalists and others. If Bolsonaro wins, some fear more political violence. His own rhetoric is often highly inflammatory.
“Let’s sweep these red thugs off the map of Brazil,” Bolsonaro said to cheers at a packed rally on Sao Paulo’s main thoroughfare earlier this month, referring to his leftist opponents. “We are the majority! The real Brazil! “
Long seen as an economic protectionist, Bolsonaro did an over-face during the campaign, embracing the free market. But he still played two nationalists, wanting China for “buying up” Brazil. Twice divorced and now married to his third wife, he nevertheless proclaimed himself a supporter of family values, and his opposition to gay rights and legalizing abortion helped him win over evangelicals, a powerful voter base.
But corruption and the Workers’ Party were his primary targets. Siden demokratiet blev restaureret her i 1985, to præsidenter har været impeached, en har gått i jail, og Brasiliens nuværende leder har blitt indicted on a charge of corruption, a charge he denies. En tredjedel af det lavere hus er under efterforskning for korruption, stort set knyttet til et sprawling kickbacksystem, der involverer nogle af landets største virksomheder. Bolsonaro’s outsider-cleans-house platform resonated with Brazilians.
During the campaign, Bolsonaro’s supporters financed a mass defamation campaign against his leftist challenger, Haddad, on WhatsApp, the popular messaging platform, according to an investigation by Folha de Sao Paulo. Bolsonaro dismissed the Folha allegations as “fake news.”
While some Brazilians began to see Bolsonaro as their hero, others seemed to overlook his bombastic statements in a search for meaningful change.
“If there had been another decent candidate, I would not have voted for him,” Jose Colares, 51, a dentist in Sao Paulo, said of Bolsonaro after casting his ballot Sunday for the far-right candidate.