- - Tuesday, September 18, 2018

When Brazilians heard from their unlikely presidential front-runner on Sunday for the first time since was stabbed at a campaign rally 10 days earlier, both supporters and detractors agreed that the message, mood and medium were all classic Jair Bolsonaro.

In a shaky Facebook videotaped by one of his sons, the nationalist firebrand warned against election-rigging, railed against the news media and accused the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) of various conspiracies. He also grudgingly allowed that its members were “human beings, too.”

As he spoke from his hospital bed, the voice of a visibly shaken Mr. Bolsonaro seemed to crack alternately with fatigue, emotion and anger. But his message — which has led some to describe him as a South American Donald Trump — never wavered: Brazil’s political system is broken, and he alone can fix it.

“What’s at stake? It’s not my future,” said the wounded candidate, who is out of intensive care but is expected to remain hospitalized. “We live in a time when the future of more than 200 million Brazilians is at stake.”

The rise of the 63-year-old congressman has stunned and unnerved Brazil’s already battered political class, which, from left to right, is calling Mr. Bolsonaro a threat to democracy.

Polls suggest that he will sail past the Oct. 7 vote to face a yet-to-be-determined challenger, most likely the PT’s Fernando Haddad, in an Oct. 28 runoff.

How the knife attack, caught on video during a campaign stop in the provincial city of Juiz de Fora, and his slow recuperation will affect an already scrambled presidential campaign is a big question, but some say his defiance and resilience in the face of grave attack can only help him at the polls.

Brazilian pollster MDA reported Monday that Mr. Bolsonaro is the clear front-runner with 28.2 percent of the vote and Mr. Haddad is second with 17.6 percent. Only center-left populist Ciro Gomes, third in the polls for the Oct. 7 vote, is competitive with Mr. Bolsonaro in a one-on-one matchup.

Long a marginal figure in national politics, the former army captain passed through eight parties before joining the fringe, far-right Social Liberal Party (PSL) this year. In the 27 years he has represented Rio de Janeiro in the House, Mr. Bolsonaro frequently backed the populist course of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, now his political nemesis.

Since then, he has made what University of Sao Paulo political scientist Wagner Mancuso calls a U-turn toward a pro-business platform, an about-face that nevertheless doesn’t seem to have lessened wariness in Brazil’s business class about a Bolsonaro victory.

The twice-divorced Catholic father of five often made headlines with his bellicose rhetoric, notably in remarks displaying a thinly veiled admiration of the military junta, which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. But amid a massive government scandal and a chaotic electoral process, Mr. Bolsonaro has adroitly turned his tough talk into a major selling point and picked a controversial army general as his running mate.

Many Brazilians seem unfazed by Mr. Bolsonaro’s brash persona, which Mr. Mancuso sums up as “anti-human rights, misogynistic, homophobic and racist.”

After years of political and economic turmoil, supporters celebrate Mr. Bolsonaro’s pledge to clean up what they view as a thoroughly corrupt Brasilia.

“It’s impressive,” Mr. Mancuso said. “Bolsonaro defends torture, Bolsonaro attacks women, Bolsonaro attacks homosexuals — and none of it has an effect on his electorate.”

‘Never Bolsonaro’

But as with Mr. Trump, Mr. Bolsonaro’s anti-establishment appeal and crockery-breaking rhetorical style had an effect on an already polarized electorate, with unlikely allies uniting in a kind of “Never Bolsonaro” campaign. Fueled primarily by female voters, who are organizing themselves by the millions on Facebook, the Bolsonaro opposition has used social media outlets that had been considered the home turf of the social-media-savvy candidate.

The backlash has generated a “wave of women” of vastly different ideological stripes who have come together to pull their weight in Brazilian politics, prominent human rights activist Debora Diniz, a visiting fellow at Yale Law School, told The Washington Times.

With polls suggesting that Mr. Bolsonaro is a near lock to qualify for the two-candidate Oct. 28 run-off, many women will eventually have to hold their noses to vote for whatever candidate is left standing between him and the presidential Planalto Palace, she suggested.

“That’s the political strategy: We don’t need to have an alternative right now; [rather] we’ll go to the second round,” Ms. Diniz said. “But right now, we’re united in saying ‘no.’”

For Ms. Diniz, founder of the pro-choice Anis Institute of Bioethics, that could mean checking a box next to the name of Geraldo Alckmin, the center-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party’s (PSDB) nominee with ties to the Catholic Church’s ultraconservative Opus Dei.

“Let’s be clear: Anything except [Bolsonaro],” she said. “And that’s a clear example of the paradoxical situation we’re in in this country.”

In her particular case, such worries may be premature. Polling shows Mr. Bolsonaro is drawing much backing from disgruntled former PSDB voters, making a faceoff with Mr. Alckmin unlikely.

“Bolsonaro’s strength is very much linked to the PSDB’s weakness,” Mr. Mancuso said. “The second round will be between Bolsonaro and Haddad unless Alckmin can destroy Bolsonaro’s figure, [for which] he still hasn’t found the right way.”

It’s a calculus the academic shares with the candidate, and Mr. Bolsonaro on Sunday firmly turned his fire on the PT, which has confirmed Mr. Haddad as its stand-in at the top of the ticket for da Silva, the iconic party founder and former president, whom the courts have declared ineligible after he was given a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s well-earned outsider credentials could give him a clear line of attack no matter who emerges as his challenger.

“Would you flatly, calmly, go to jail? … What’s the Plan B of this hopeful — this man, once poor, who robbed us of all our hope?” he challenged Mr. da Silva. “If Haddad is elected president, … you know he’ll sign Lula’s pardon the very minute of his inauguration.”

All the talk about uniting behind an establishment candidate, Mr. Bolsonaro insisted — though without evidence — was merely an attempt to lay the groundwork to rig the runoff and deny him the presidency.

“The narrative now is that I’d lose the second round to everybody,” he said. “The great worry really isn’t losing in the vote but losing in the fraud.”

Mr. Mancuso said Mr. Bolsonaro’s real problem is basic math: He is unlikely to attract a majority of the electorate once the field is winnowed down.

“He doesn’t speak for the majority of the Brazilian people,” he said. “[The hard right] bothers, threatens — but still is not in a position to win a majority of votes.”

Destabilizing choices

Many worry that a runoff between candidates on the ideological extremes could prove destabilizing for Brazil, which is still reeling from the political battle that impeached and removed President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 and the economic crisis that successor President Michel Temer has been unable to reverse.

“A second round between the far right and the left will unsettle the markets, with implementation of pro-business reforms unlikely,” Carlos Caicedo, associate director for Latin America Country Risk at analytics data firm IHS Markit, told the Reuters news agency this week.

Even if Brazil’s more than 147 million voters deliver a surprise next month, Mr. Mancuso predicts a Bolsonaro presidency would be marked by conflict and could be short-lived.

“The traditional political system would mount such a strong resistance against him that he’d likely be ousted,” he said. “Everybody against him would make it very difficult to hang on.”

So in a weak Brazil marked by a seemingly never-ending political meltdown amid a historic corruption scandal, analysts generally agree that the next president may not be named Bolsonaro — but will be tasked with preventing the next Bolsonaro.

“I believe he has no chance,” Mr. Mancuso said. “[But] I believe he’s a symptom of this crisis.”

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