A Momentous Election in Brazil: What’s at Stake?

A Momentous Election in Brazil: What’s at Stake?

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Voters in Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy, appear poised to elect a far-right populist as president in a runoff election on Sunday that could signal the biggest political shift in the country since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.

Jair Bolsonaro, who came close to an outright victory in the first round of voting this month, with 46 percent, will face Fernando Haddad of the left-wing Workers’ Party, who received 29 percent. Here is an election primer:

Mr. Bolsonaro, 63, a former army captain, was first elected to Congress in 1991. During most of his legislative career, he was a marginal figure known for speaking nostalgically about the 1964-1985 military dictatorship and for making incendiary comments about women and minorities.

But as the country’s main political parties were swept up in a large-scale corruption investigation, known as Lava Jato, or Car Wash, Mr. Bolsonaro has pitched himself to voters as an anti-establishment maverick who will fight graft. And in a country traumatized by violent crime, his iron-fisted approach to law and order has appealed to voters in traditionally left-wing strongholds.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s meteoric rise is all the more remarkable because he campaigned on a shoestring budget, relying largely on social media, while his rivals enjoyed generous public funding and coveted slots on television and radio, which are awarded based on party size.

Weeks before the first round of voting, Mr. Bolsonaro was stabbed at a rally and was forced to campaign from his bed. Wall-to-wall coverage of the attack, though, kept him in the headlines and seemed to have increased his appeal.

Mr. Bolsonaro also benefited from last-minute endorsements from evangelicals and the powerful agribusiness industry.

Mr. Haddad’s campaign, which began only a month before the first round of voting, faced its own challenges. He was chosen to replace Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the ballot after the former president, who is serving a prison term on corruption and money-laundering charges, was barred from running as the Workers’ Party candidate.

Mr. da Silva had been leading in the polls until the courts ruled in August that he was ineligible to run.

Despite the campaign slogan “Haddad Is Lula,” the less charismatic Mr. Haddad has failed to fully win over the former president’s base. He also faced the wrath of voters who blamed the Workers’ Party not only for the corruption scandal but also for a crippling recession that began on the watch of Mr. da Silva’s successor, former President Dilma Rousseff.

Soaring crime, a struggling economy and corruption have dominated the debate.

Although Mr. Bolsonaro could not point to any major accomplishments during his seven terms as a lawmaker, he highlighted his clean record. He cultivated an image as a crude but honest candidate, and vowed to reject traditional horse-trading.

Brazilians’ disgust with politics as usual became apparent in the first round of voting, when conservatives allied with Mr. Bolsonaro won a surprising number of congressional seats — 52, up from eight — making his Social Liberal Party the second-largest in the lower house.

While Mr. Haddad tried to distance himself from Mr. da Silva after the first round of voting — removing the former president’s image from campaign ads and swapping the Workers’ Party’s traditional red for the blue, green and yellow of the Brazilian flag — he dodged questions about the party’s responsibility for the corruption scandal.

Public anger over crime also fueled the campaign. Brazil has averaged 175 murders a day this past year, surpassing its previous macabre record. Mr. Bolsonaro, who often poses with his fingers pointed like pistols, has vowed to ease gun restrictions and make it easier for the police to kill suspects.

On the economy, Mr. Haddad appealed to poor voters with promises to extend social spending and “make Brazil happy again.” But Mr. Bolsonaro has sought to win over the middle and upper classes, as well as the markets, by choosing Paulo Guedes, a pro-business, University of Chicago-trained investor to be his future finance minister.

A victory by Mr. Bolsonaro could signal the crumbling of much of the political establishment, which has been dominated by the Workers’ Party since 2002.

Critics say Mr. Bolsonaro will staff his cabinet with military men, treat political opponents despotically and undermine democratic institutions. Just a week before the runoff vote, he told a rally in São Paulo via video that his Workers’ Party rivals would have to leave the country or go to jail.

“Those red good-for-nothings will be banished from the homeland,” he said. “It will be a cleanup the likes of which has never been seen in Brazilian history.”

Some Brazilians have been concerned that Mr. Haddad’s election could undermine the Car Wash investigation and lead to Mr. da Silva’s release from jail. That gave them a reason to back Mr. Bolsonaro.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the next president is the economy. Brazil is struggling to emerge from its worst recession on record, which left nearly 13 million people unemployed.

Neither candidate has put forth a detailed plan for economic recovery, but the markets have bet on Mr. Bolsonaro as more likely to put austerity and privatization measures in place.

The election has the potential to shape not only the destiny of Latin America’s largest country, but also the fate of the Amazon.

Mr. Bolsonaro has promised to champion the agribusiness sector, which seeks to open up more forests to produce beef and soybeans. He has threatened to weaken or eliminate the Environment Ministry and withdraw funding from agencies that punish illegal loggers and miners.

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