Brazil toggles between extremes

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Brazil goes to the polls on Sunday, October 7, in the most contentious election since the country returned to democracy in 1985.

Uber-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro and leftist Fernando Haddad will likely go to a second round on October 28. Polls tend to be quite accurate in Brazil, where voting is obligatory by law, and both over the last few weeks have surged ahead of the pack.

Most people, including myself, sense this is as not good news for Brazil.

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Bolsonaro, who was knifed at a rally in mid-September by an attacker claiming he was under God's orders, is a former army captain who has created controversy with consistently unhinged and wildly inappropriate comments. For this, he has been called the Brazilian Donald Trump.

"I actually believe that in Brazil the [Trump] analogy really does apply," Brian Winter, the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly, told me in a podcast. "Because you have a guy on the right who is recognized even by his supporters as politically incorrect - which by the way is a term that I think banalizes much of what Bolsonaro has said."

What he has said includes comments glorifying dictatorships, as well as offhand homophobic and sexist statements that has created a mass movement called #EleNão, or 'Not Him.'

Meanwhile, former São Paulo mayor Haddad, a soft-spoken academic, was only slotted into the race on September 11 by the traditional leftist workers party, or PT. They did so when they finally saw that ex-president Luiz Inancio Lula da Silva, or Lula, who is Brazil's most popular politician, would not be able to run for office. Lula is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

A poll over the weekend had Haddad winning the second round by a slim margin. But Winter thinks Bolsonaro could potentially prevail.

"If it comes down to an election between Bolsonaro and the workers party, which will be sold internally, not inaccurately, as a race between Bolsonaro and Lula, then Bolsonaro is going to have a whole lot of people who are going to be willing to hold their noses and vote for him," he says.

Winter points out that Trump was elected with a negative image of over 60%; in recent polling Bolsonaro's rejection rate was at 46%.

"It's true that his rejection is high," Winter says, "but let's remember that elections are not a yes/no vote - they are an either/or."

The fact is the workers party presided over Brazil during its worst corruption scandal followed by its worst recession. The PT has in fact won the last four elections and is very much part of the establishment. The great challenge it will face is trying to convince voters that it is new, that it is the party of decency and democracy, even as its founder, Lula, was convicted by the nation's highest court for corruption.

"It's about as close to a 50/50 race as you can get," Winter says. "There will be some surprise bedfellows. I think you will [also] see people who will put their hatred for the workers party aside and cast their vote for democracy and human rights."

Shelly Shetty, the head of sovereign ratings at Fitch Ratings in New York, told me she thinks that centrist Geraldo Alckmin is the best equipped to tackle the significant growth and fiscal challenges facing the country.

It's basically where many observers stand: former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said in a recent interview that he really doesn't know what Bolsonaro thinks, so thin has he been on policy. And the PT's recent economic performance has been nothing short of ruinous.

I'm an optimist. But as it stands, it doesn't bode well for Brazil.