RIO DE JANEIRO — Plastered across newsstands all over Brazil, a magazine cover of presidential front-runner Jair Bolsonaro — wearing a military beret and the presidential sash — nimbly captured the national mood here days before the Oct. 28 runoff: “Is this really happening?” the weekly Veja wondered.
If the latest opinion polls are any indication, the answer is a resounding “yes”: A week before Sunday’s vote, the maverick, politically incorrect, far-right populist was leading his opponent, Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), by a stunning 18 percentage points.
Both supporters and opponents are now coming to grips with the fact that Mr. Bolsonaro — a 63-year-old former army captain widely viewed as a fringe politician throughout his seven terms in Congress — will, in all likelihood, soon lead South America’s most populous nation, riding a wave of popular disgust with corruption, crime and a ruling class widely seen as out of touch.
With little passion, Mr. Haddad’s camp spent much of last week denouncing a supposed misinformation campaign on social media, while his comfortable lead sparked Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision to skip a final televised debate.
“The trend clearly is Bolsonaro; it seems to be irreversible,” said Rio de Janeiro State University political scientist Valter Duarte. “And it’s not that strange because he managed to win over a part of society that felt a kind of resentment, particularly toward years of PT government.”
In a stunning result in the Oct. 7 first round, Mr. Bolsonaro took 46 percent of the vote in a crowded field, just short of the outright majority needed to avoid a runoff. Mr. Haddad was second with 29 percent, and analysts say they see little chance that Mr. Bolsonaro’s rivals can deny him the few extra votes he needs to put him over the top.
For the first time in memory, Mr. Duarte said, Brazilians were voting not so much for a candidate and his ideas, but rather against the alternative. Although many reject Mr. Bolsonaro’s often inflammatory rhetoric, even more now view the Workers’ Party — and its leading establishment rivals — as hopelessly corrupt.
In Barra da Tijuca, a leafy upper-class neighborhood where Mr. Bolsonaro captured more than nine times as many votes as Mr. Haddad in the Oct. 7 first round, his die-hard supporters believe that he — and only he — can fix a country they view as torn apart by crime and graft.
“I agree with 100 percent of his proposals,” said medical resident Waldemar Naves do Amaral, 26, who stopped by and donned a “Bolsonaro Presidente” T-shirt to snap a picture outside the gated seaside community where the candidate and Rio congressman makes his home.
Amid a campaign marked by unusual violence — Mr. Bolsonaro himself was stabbed and severely wounded at a Sept. 6 rally — the young fan said he applauds his tough-on-crime stance, with vows to relax gun laws, toughen prison conditions and grant immunity to police who use deadly force.
“I believe this country needs a chance, a sharp change,” Mr. Naves do Amaral said. “You can’t be on both sides, that of the criminal and that of the state. … You need to choose, [and] you need to be harsher.”
The “outsider” status the lawmaker cultivates despite his three decades in politics, meanwhile, appeals to Cristian Fernandes, who, camped outside the candidate’s home, makes a living by selling Bolsonaro T-shirts and dolls of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon here, in prison garb.
“I embraced the cause,” said Mr. Fernandes. “I’m here to sow, not to harvest: I have a son, I have grandkids, and I need for them to have a better Brazil.”
A former Workers’ Party supporter, the 44-year-old now considers his vote for da Silva, now serving a 12-year corruption sentence that knocked him out of the presidential race, a mistake.
“I used to vote for Lula since when I was 16,” he said. “[But given] the country’s situation, you can’t not change.”
Mr. Haddad, catapulted to the top of the ticket last month when the courts rejected da Silva’s bid to run from prison, thus finds himself the default target of popular anger at his party, which ruled Brazil from 2003 until the 2016 impeachment of da Silva successor Dilma Rousseff.
With Brazilians still reeling from the aftershocks of a three-year recession and an unprecedented corruption scandal, enthusiasm for Mr. Haddad is hard to come by even in Laranjeiras — one of the few Rio neighborhoods where Mr. Bolsonaro failed to win a majority.
“I’m against Bolsonaro,” said local high school student Luisa Morais, 18, a first-time voter. “But I still don’t know whether [to vote with] a blank ballot or [for] Haddad because I don’t like the PT, either.”
It’s a dilemma no longer even of interest to Jose Antonio Ferreira, a street vendor who sells coconut juice along Laranjeiras’ main thoroughfare, just steps from Rio’s gubernatorial Guanabara Palace, likely soon occupied by political upstart and Bolsonaro ally Wilson Witzel.
“They’re all thieves,” said Mr. Ferreira, 56, who, given that voting is mandatory in Brazil, vowed to submit a blank ballot. “I don’t expect anything, neither from one nor from the other.”
The passions on both sides were evident over the weekend, as anti-Bolsonaro forces rallied Saturday, chanting the “Not him” protest that has become their rallying cry. But tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters were out in the streets in 15 states across this massive country, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Bolsonaro has managed to skillfully tap into this potent mix of discontent and anti-establishment sentiment, Clovis Saint-Clair, the author of one of his few book-length profiles, told The Washington Times.
“He took advantage of … the hatred toward the PT [and] the anti-corruption banner,” Mr. Saint-Clair said. “He owns this rhetoric, radicalizes, polarizes, and takes the lead as the PT’s Enemy No. 1.”
To the author, the frequent comparisons to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — Mr. Bolsonaro has declared his admiration for the American president and embraced his “Brazil’s Trump” moniker — are indeed well-founded.
“It’s the same strategy used by Trump in the United States,” he said. “Somewhat dissatisfied people … were bombarded with extreme right-wing information. … They don’t want to think about their options; they simply want to throw the PT out of power, whatever that brings with it.”
What a President Bolsonaro would actually do, meanwhile, remains anybody’s guess.
The former paratrooper started his political career as a fervent nationalist, but his would-be finance minister, University of Chicago-trained banker Paulo Guedes, is about as pro-free market as they come.
Although the thrice-married father of five is ardent in his opposition to legalized abortions and same-sex unions, critics have said he still lacks well-rounded proposals for Brazil’s troubled health care and pension systems.
His conspicuous intention to rely on military brass to run his administration — his running mate, Hamilton Mourao, is a four-star general, and his Cabinet would be made up of “a ton of military ministers,” he has said — has alarm bells ringing among human rights activists.
Mr. Bolsonaro has raised concerns here and abroad with his vocal defense of military rule in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, and he maintains close ties to conservative groups of soldiers and reservists, Maud Chirio, author of “Politics in Uniform: Military Officers and Dictatorship in Brazil,” said in an interview.
“Bolsonaro is the product of these networks,” she said, “and he was sustained by these networks during [his entire] period as a congressman.”
The reserve officer will likely expand the use of the army to fight crime, a strategy adopted by Ms. Rousseff and her successor, Michel Temer, which means that today truckloads of heavily armed soldiers are a familiar sight along Rio’s famed waterfront boulevards.
“He believes in the usefulness of the militarization of public safety,” Ms. Chirio said. “[To him,] it’s a war against violence and [crime]; and in wars, there is different rules — or no rules.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s fondness of and backing from within the armed forces are undeniable, as is the fact that some of his supporters feel called to violence, Mr. Duarte said. But fears of an impending dictatorship are overblown, the political scientist cautioned.
“He will get to the presidency with the legitimacy of the vote, not through a coup,” he said. “And it looks like he will also have a friendly parliamentary base, so he can do what he wants with [legislative] approval.”
In a deeply disillusioned and divided country, thus, Mr. Bolsonaro’s biggest challenge might well be to reinvent himself as a voice of unity without disappointing the soaring hopes of his supporters.
“He was never a very active parliamentarian,” Mr. Saint-Clair said. “He very much has gained notoriety based on controversy, based on homophobic statements, misogynistic statements.”
But in the dwindling days before Sunday’s runoff, Brazilians’ political fatigue seems such that even minority voters like Ruth Oliveira, a 52-year-old employee at a Barra de Tijuca convenience stand, are simply clamoring for a change.
“Look, I’ve thought about those things: that he’s a racist, he doesn’t like blacks … he doesn’t like gays,” she said. “Even so, I’ll vote for him. Because knowing another one’s dirt doesn’t matter; what matters is the country.”