Brazil’s 147 million eligible voters have begun casting ballots in Sunday’s federal election, which will help decide who will replace the wildly unpopular centrist Michel Temer as the president of South America’s largest country and economy (it will also determine the composition of the next Congress, country’s governorships, vice-governorships and state government positions).
While no candidate is expected to win an outright majority – which means the top two finishers will face off in a second-round vote on Oct. 28 – federal congressman Jair Bolsanaro, a far right candidate who has divided the country with his sympathetic comments about Brazil’s 20-year military dictatorship, has pulled ahead in recent polls, with some placing his support as high as 44%.
Meaning that after years of leftist rule, followed by a brief period of tepid centrism, a man who has embraced the label “the Brazilian Donald Trump” is poised to win a presidential election, bringing the global populist anti-establishment movement to South America.
One poll taken on Oct. 3 showed that Bolsonaro was polling at 32%, compared with 22% a month earlier, after a deranged socialist gravely wounded Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper in the Brazilian military, by stabbing him in the gut during a rally. Though Bolsonaro lost a massive quantity of blood, ironically, the attack helped galvanize his supporters. Despite being absent from a presidential vote this week, Bolsonaro still dominated.
Of course, the electorate’s embrace of a far-right populist candidate amid a surge of nostalgia for the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985 is no accident. The social ills facing Brazil’s 210 million people – who only a few years ago were enjoying a period of relative prosperity – are myriad and diffuse: The unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 12%, a gaping budget shortfall, economic mismanagement and endemic public corruption have shaken the faith of international investors who have left the Brazilian real to plummet. Crime is rampant, with more than 63,000 murders last year, making people yearn for the social stability that was once a hallmark of life in the country. Schools, hospitals and roads are run down and underfunded. Because these and other factors (including his becoming ensnared in a corruption scandal just like his predecessor, Dilma Roussef) Brazilian President Michel Temer is universally despised, with an approval rating of 2%.
While the left-wing Workers’ Party presided over the most recent economic boom, it is also responsible for leading the country into an economic death spiral. And the massive “carwash” probe into corruption at state-run energy giant Petrobras, a scandal that led to the ouster of former President Dilma Roussef, has sown widespread resentment directed at the Brazilian left. Former President Lula da Silva, by some measures the most popular politician in the country, was preventing from running under the WP banner due to being imprisoned on corruption charges. Fernando Haddad, who trails Bolsanaro in the polls and will likely face him in the runoff vote, is running in Lula’s stead after a court ruled that Lula was ineligible due to a law that he himself signed during his presidency.
Bolsanaro is widely viewed as the pro-markets candidate and signs of his advancement in the polls have bolstered the Brazilian real as well as domestic assets. And despite his history of misogynistic and homophobic remarks, Bolsanaro maintains widespread support among Brazilian women, like one businesswoman from Sao Paolo who shared her views with the WSJ.
“The [Workers’ Party] has devastated the country,” said Solange Correia, a 58-year old businesswoman in São Paulo who enthusiastically supports Mr. Bolsonaro, one of the few top Brazilian politicians not tainted by graft scandals despite his 27 years in Congress.
Bolsanaro has also decried Brazil’s electoral process, which relies on electronic voting machines, as deeply suspect and has said, in a comment that echoed one made by President Trump during the 2016 campaign, that he would reject any outcome where he isn’t the winner. To ensure fairness, the Brazilian army is deploying 28,000 troops to protect the polls, while the Organization of American States is sending teams of independent observers.
Though the Economist singled-out Bolsanaro in an article warning about a return to Brazil’s military dictatorship, he’s not the only candidate who has expressed sympathy and support for authoritarian leaders. The Worker’s Party has expressed support for leftist strongmen in Cuba and Venezuela, per WSJ.
Many Brazilians fear for a return to authoritarian rule from either candidate, given Mr. Bolsonaro’s sympathy for the 1964-1985 military rule and the support for strongman regimes in Venezuela and Cuba shown by Mr. Haddad’s party. Such concerns led Chief Justice Dias Toffoli to publicly call for restraint earlier in the week, on the anniversary of the country’s 1988 Constitution. “Dictatorship, never again,” he said during a televised Supreme Court session.
Some academics have claimed that Brazil’s current obsession with strongmen leaders has reached “the point of madness.”
“We’ve reached a point of madness,” said Boris Fausto, a Brazilian historian who at age 87 witnessed two long dictatorships in Brazil come and go. “Extremism has taken the upper hand, particularly the rise of an extreme right that has no commitment to democracy.”
This may be true, but then again, the anger that Brazilians are feeling appears to be justified. Brazilian election laws mandate voting for all citizens between the ages of 18 and 70. Those who don’t vote risk receiving a small fine and other administrative penalties. For Brazilians aged 16 and 17, or 70 and over, voting is optional.
Since Brazil is divided into three time zones, the polls in the western state of Acre won’t close until 7 pm in Brasilia (6 pm in New York). Once voting has ended, Bloomberg expects the results to quickly flood in. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported earlier this week that investors were loading up on Ibovespa puts to hedge against a weaker-than-expected showing by Bolsonaro in Sunday’s vote. If he surpasses expectations, expect domestic stocks to rally amid a flurry of short-covering.