Buenos Aires, Brazil | Brazilians hoping to turn the page after years of political tumult in Sunday’s presidential election may instead end up writing yet another chapter in a governing crisis marked by impeachment, imprisonment and economic implosion, with a one-time fringe figure now the race’s front-runner.
In an unwieldy field of 13 candidates, the final polls suggest that Jair Bolsonaro, a hard-right maverick often dubbed “Brazil’s Trump” because of his blunt, anti-establishment rhetoric, will likely capture the most votes and easily secure a spot in the Oct. 28 runoff. He will likely face the leftist Workers’ Party’s candidate Fernando Haddad, political heir to former President Dilma Rousseff (impeached in 2016) and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (blocked from running owing to a corruption conviction this year).
Ever since he was gravely wounded in a knife attack at a Sept. 6 campaign event, Mr. Bolsonaro’s poll numbers have risen so precipitously that analysts now believe the Rio de Janeiro lawmaker might be close winning a majority and avoiding a runoff altogether. Polls say Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Haddad would be neck and neck in a two-candidate race, but the momentum is clearly with the conservative upstart.
With a 10-point lead and momentum in his favor, such a first-round blowout, the first since 1998, though not yet “likely” is now within the realm of the “possible,” said Paulo Roberto de Almeida, who leads the Brazilian foreign ministry’s IPRI think tank, in an interview.
“You got 13 percent of ‘unknown’ and ‘uncommitted,’ 15 percent of blank and void [votes],” Mr. de Almeida said. “Right there, you could have a kind of ‘Trump effect’ of embarrassed voters and people who are still undecided.”
Mr. Bolsonaro, who has spoken against same-sex marriage and for the death penalty during his long political career, was confident enough to skip Thursday night’s final presidential debate, ostensibly on advice from his medical team, and urged backers to get out the vote in one of his trademark social media videos.
“We’re very close to winning the elections in the first round,” he said. “We have to solve this task in the first round to avoid the wear and tear of a second round.”
Under increased pressure, Mr. Haddad on Thursday for the first time attacked Mr. Bolsonaro by name in a TV ad and, in a nod to the key evangelical voting bloc, publicly invoked “God’s blessing.” The leftist candidate urged voters to focus on pocketbook issues.
“[Mr. Bolsonaro voted] against the fund against poverty. He voted against the minimum wage hike. But when it came to upping his own salary, he voted in favor,” he said. “Don’t vote for who always votes against you.”
Mr. Haddad’s overture to evangelicals comes as a Datafolha poll shows him trailing by 25 points among this key group and days after Edir Macedo, the leader of the 8 million member-strong Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, endorsed Mr. Bolsonaro.
“This almost turned into an order for evangelicals,” Mr. de Almeida said, noting that the endorsement effectively sank the candidacy of Marina Silva, an environmentalist candidate who had long enjoyed backing from her fellow evangelicals.
Other presidential hopefuls who will likely end Sunday as also-runs include sharp-tongued leftist Ciro Gomes; bland centrist Geraldo Alckmin; libertarian newcomer Joao Amoedo; and Henrique Meirelles, of outgoing President Michel Temer’s big-tent Democratic Movement.
Mr. Alckmin, long considered a darling of the markets, on Thursday shot down the idea of candidates dropping out to form a broader coalition against both the conservative Mr. Bolsonaro and the liberal Mr. Haddad.
“The voter is the one to decide,” he said. “We’ll go for the runoff; the election is not until Sunday.”
But the fracturing among the Workers’ Party’s traditional opponents led not only to Mr. Haddad’s emergence as Mr. Bolsonaro’s only real challenger, but also, ironically, to the outsider’s last-minute surge, Mr. de Almeida said.
“There are intelligent, sensible, cultured, educated people who say, ‘Anything but the [Workers’ Party],’ and so people are willing to abandon reasonable candidates … to vote for Bolsonaro as the lesser evil,” he said. “It’s a sentiment that could exacerbate in the coming days.”
Both Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Haddad seemed to take pages of out President Trump’s playbook in recent days, with the former warning of a potentially rigged election and the latter declaring a “war” on “fake news.”
But the Haddad camp took another blow Thursday when prosecutors charged Mr. da Silva — who is already serving a 12-year sentence and only weeks had been forced to cede the top of the ticket — with 16 additional counts of corruption and money laundering in a scandal that has tarred much of the country’s political establishment.
“Even though [Mr. Bolsonaro] has been in Congress for 20 years,” Mr. de Almeida noted, “he is playing more or less the same role [played by] Lula himself: that of anti-establishment candidate.”
Visiting Brazil’s Northeast, Mr. Lula da Silva’s homeland and a traditional stronghold of the left, the outspoken front-runner quickly added insult to injury.
“[Haddad] is now serving a man who could have been a great president,” he said. “But Lula is harvesting what he sowed; I’m sorry he is in jail.”
And while his candidacy has mutated from “unthinkable” to “possible” — and now even to “likely” — it might be better for Brazil and for Mr. Bolsonaro himself if Sunday’s vote required a three-week run-off campaign, Mr. de Almeida mused.
“If the president were elected in the first round, he would see himself with an authority he, in truth, doesn’t have,” he said. Otherwise, “he would necessarily need to make adjustments between the first and second rounds.”