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Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Trumpian candidate, narrowly misses outright victory

The right-wing presidential candidate will face a leftist, Fernando Haddad, in a runoff on October 28.

Protestors Rally Against Brazilian Presidential Candidate Jair Bolsonaro
Protests against the right-wing Bolsonaro in Brazil in September 2018.
Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

Brazil’s most critical election in years is headed toward a runoff — and a far-right candidate who has been compared to President Donald Trump is in the lead.

Brazilians voted Sunday in the first round of their presidential elections, elevating far-right politician, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote and narrowly missed winning the election outright. Leftist candidate Fernando Haddad, who is backed by popular former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, came in second and garnered approximately 29 percent of the vote.

The runoff between the two candidates is set to take place October 28 — and it’s a battle that is likely to fracture an already divided electorate. Brazilians are reeling from the country’s rampant corruption problem, escalating crime rates, and flailing economy, and the two candidates presented very different approaches to those problems.

Haddad, of the leftist Workers’ Party, has made Brazil’s economic problems a central focus of his platform, and presented a tax-and-spend plan to reduce unemployment and strengthen the social safety. He’s tried to tie himself closely to the leftist legacy of Lula.

Bolsonaro, the far-right candidate, made security a central part of his campaign — a platform that apparently resonated with Brazil’s electorate, since he looks to be the early favorite in the presidential runoff at the end of the month. The former army captain has threatened to “quebrar o sistema” — break the system — though in some cases, especially when it comes to the economy, he hasn’t provided many specifics.

Bolsonaro did especially well in the southern part of the country, including Rio de Janeiro, where he received nearly 60 percent of the vote. Two other centrist candidates also competed in the election, but it’s unlikely all those voters will break for Haddad in the final round of voting, leaving the leftist candidate with a margin that will be extraordinarily difficult to make up.

Bolsonaro’s showing on Sunday is even more remarkable because he was largely seen as a fringe candidate, without the backing of any major party. He ran on the Social Liberal Party (PSL), and politicians running for office who were associated with his ticket also did better than expected in the voting. But if Bolsonaro wins the runoff, he will likely need to build a governing coalition with other right-leaning allies to implement his policies.

The candidate celebrated thanked his supporters on Facebook. “Let’s make Brazil great! Let’s be proud of our homeland once again!” he wrote in a statement that contained echoes of Trump, who he’s said to admire.

This is one of Brazil’s most important elections in years

A Bolsonaro victory would echo other rightward shifts in democracies around the world, but the potential change would be even more pronounced in Brazil, which has largely elected leftist or left-leaning presidents in the past two decades.

But voters have grown frustrated with the status quo due to a slew of political and economic crises. The current president, Michel Temer, is deeply unpopular in the wake of a struggling economy and corruption scandals among ministers in his government.

Temer took over for former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in 2016. Her leftist predecessor, Lula, is serving a 12-year sentence for corruption charges. He’s still fairly popular in Brazil, and he tried to mount a reelection campaign from prison. He was ultimately barred from running.

Haddad was Lula’s chosen successor, but the former mayor has apparently failed to galvanize voters with the same ferocity as Lula.

Yet despite Bolsonaro’s success at the polls, many Brazilian voters, particularly women, see him as an alienating figure. Those who oppose him use the slogan #EleNão, or “Not Him” because of his misogynistic comments, such as once reportedly telling a woman colleague in the legislature that she was “not worthy” of being raped by him.

Bolsonaro also faced an assassination attempt in early September. Polling suggested that this boosted his profile among voters, but it also revealed how controversial the candidate was, as Mike LaSusa explained for Vox:

Bolsonaro’s popularity alarms many Brazilians — in part because he has expressed admiration for dictators, and has expressed racist views. Bolsonaro openly defended the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the 1960s to the ’80s, and has denied the Portuguese Empire’s extensive involvement in the slave trade — a highly controversial statement in a country where more than half the population is black or mixed race.

Now that the race has narrowed, the media, and voters, will likely be paying even closer attention to Bolsonaro, who largely avoided the mainstream press and relied on social media to attract voters.

The implications of such a polarizing election are also frightening to some. Salo Maldonado, a 36-year-old small-business owner in Rio de Janeiro, told Vox last week that the country’s deep divisions have turned this presidential race an unpredictable powder keg. “Either it goes very well or it turns into civil war,” he said.

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