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Brazil’s Presidential Race: Who’s Ahead and What to Expect

Category: Americas,World

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — There has been no lack of drama in the lead-up to Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday. One candidate was jailed, another was stabbed and a week before the voting, women organized nationwide protests against the front-runner.

The presidential contest, the most splintered and divisive race since the end of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, has for many Brazilians come down to who is the least bad option.

The front-runner by a wide margin is the far-right former army captain, Jair Bolsonaro, according to the polls. A member of Congress since 1991, he was long a marginal figure best known for incendiary comments defending Brazil’s military dictatorship and attacking women, gays and blacks.

In addition to electing the next president from a field of 13 candidates, voters will also choose 27 governors and more than 1,600 state and federal lawmakers. In Brazil, there are 147.3 million eligible voters, and voting is obligatory.

As anger and frustration with entrenched political corruption has grown, Mr. Bolsonaro has presented himself as an anti-establishment maverick who could effectively combat corruption and rein in soaring violence and crime.

His main rival, former São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad, entered the race only last month. He was selected to represent the left-wing Workers’ Party after the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to prison on corruption charges and barred from running as the party’s candidate.

Until the courts ruled him out, Mr. da Silva had been leading in the polls. But it appears that the Workers’ Party has been unable to transfer Mr. da Silva’s broad support among impoverished Brazilians to the less charismatic Mr. Haddad.

The crowded field also includes Marina Silva, the daughter of Amazon rubber tappers; Geraldo Alckmin, the pragmatic and market-friendly former governor of São Paulo; and a candidate, Cabo Daciolo, who describes himself as a messenger from heaven.

The final polls before Election Day showed Mr. Bolsonaro’s lead widening as the evangelical and agribusiness lobbies rallied to his side. But he still appeared likely to fall short of the 50 percent-plus-one needed to avoid a runoff. Surveys project him competing in a second round of voting on Oct. 28 against Mr. Haddad.

Still, some analysts think that Mr. Bolsonaro, 63, could defy the projections and emerge victorious on Sunday night despite — or perhaps because of — his lack of support from a major political party and a shoestring budget that relied on social media to build a base.

Brazil uses an electronic ballot system and is expected to tally results within a couple of hours after polling stations close in the westernmost state of Acre at 6 p.m. Eastern Time.

Soaring crime, the worst recession on record and institutionalized political corruption have been the three main issues in the campaign.

Despite accomplishing little of note during his seven terms as a lawmaker, Mr. Bolsonaro gained prominence when a massive corruption investigation known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, engulfed all of Brazil’s major political parties.

He cultivated an image as an abrasive, but honest politician with a clean record. This was in contrast with the Workers’ Party, which has been largely blamed for the vast bribery schemes of the past decade and a half.

For many voters, the biggest concern has been violent crime. This past year, Brazil averaged 175 murders a day, surpassing its previous macabre record.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who insists that he is the only candidate tough enough to stop criminals, has posed often for photos with his fingers pointed like loaded pistols. With his unfiltered comments and amateur videos on social media, he offered ready solutions for the country’s problems: He wants to make it easier for citizens to own guns and for the police to shoot criminals.

Critics worry, however, that Mr. Bolsonaro would undermine democratic institutions, and they point to outbursts like a congressional speech in 1993 when he declared, “I am in favor of dictatorship.”

As his standing in the polls has improved, opponents rallied behind the motto #EleNão, or #NotHim, taking to the streets and the internet to encourage voters to elect anyone but Mr. Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s sputtering economy has also divided voters. Many of the country’s poorest people, who benefited from expanded social programs during Mr. da Silva’s two terms as president, have embraced his stand-in, Mr. Haddad. The Workers’ Party insisted that Mr. Haddad “would make Brazil happy again.”

But many other voters blame the Workers’ Party for the deep recession that started on its watch. Every time the polls show Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity growing, the markets rally on the hope that he will curtail social spending and make fiscal changes.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters also worry that a victory for Mr. Haddad would deal a blow to the Car Wash investigation, which might lead to Mr. da Silva being freed from prison, despite his corruption conviction.


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