A Brazilian far-right populist and the women who like him
You can’t fully understand Bolsonaro’s appeal, though, without considering his foil: former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. While many still love Lula for lifting more than 30 million people out of extreme poverty, Dilma Rousseff, his handpicked successor, led the country into its current crisis; Lula himself is now in prison on corruption charges. Unable to run this year, he anointed Fernando Haddad, a former political-science professor and one-term mayor of São Paulo, as his next heir. Few had heard of him until a flood of ads repeated the mantra “Haddad is Lula! Lula is Haddad!” As Haddad shot up in the polls, though, his disapproval rating rose even faster.
Bolsonaro—whose middle name is the Portuguese word for “messiah”—was also blessed with a freak aura of destiny. A month ago, as he was being carried aloft at a rally, a mentally disturbed man stabbed him in the gut. He spent the next few weeks campaigning from a hospital bed, spared from scrutiny at live debates. His first public address after the attack, which one of his sons recorded on a phone, was something straight out of a telenovela. Visibly pained and occasionally tearing up, he warned of a plan by the PT to falsify the vote (without presenting any proof, naturally). “What’s at stake now is your future,” he said in a halting voice. “Even those of you who support the PT—you’re a human being, too.” His allies went further, suggesting that the PT had actually orchestrated the assassination attempt.
Even after outperforming all the polls on Sunday, Bolsonaro doubled down on his favorite themes. In a video posted to Facebook, he said he would have won an outright majority if not for Brazil’s dubious electronic-voting machines. He blamed the PT for destroying the economy, warning, “We can’t keep flirting with communism and socialism.” He also said he would “put a final stop to all forms of activism in Brazil.”
Haddad, in his own speech on Sunday, couldn’t help but play into Bolsonaro’s hands, praising Lula, his political godfather, despite Brazilians’ overwhelming support for the corruption investigations that landed him in prison. Next to Haddad was his running mate, Manuela D’Ávila—also chosen by Lula—from the Communist Party of Brazil. It may be difficult for Haddad to appeal to the center. Though he’s from the moderate wing of the PT, others in his party have praised Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Bolsonaro’s favorite Communist bogeyman. Haddad did speak of uniting all those who believed in democracy—a noble message. But it remains to be seen if it will win over Brazilians who have lost faith in democracy altogether. The PT has already run ads comparing Bolsonaro directly to Hitler, and still Bolsonaro’s support has only grown. Live debates are scheduled, but Bolsonaro, despite having recovered from surgery, may well come up with another excuse to dodge them.
Ahead of the runoff, the question is what will prove stronger: hatred of the PT or fear of Bolsonaro. At a debate last week, the socialist candidate Guilherme Boulos explained in stark terms what’s at stake: “When I was born, Brazil was under a dictatorship. I don’t want my daughters to grow up under a dictatorship. It always begins like this.”