A far-right former army captain who has praised military dictatorships, defended the use of torture and insulted women and racial minorities easily won the first round of voting in Brazil’s bitterly contested presidential election, advancing to a runoff in three weeks against the main leftist candidate.
With nearly all of the vote counted Sunday night, Jair Bolsonaro was leading with 47%. He needed 50% to win outright and avoid a runoff with the second-place candidate, Fernando Haddad, who garnered 29% of the vote.
Haddad is a member of the leftist Workers’ Party, which ruled Brazil from 2003 until 2016 and until a few months ago seemed poised to return to power. Overall, right and center-right candidates in the 13-person race generally performed better than those on the left, which bodes well for Bolsonaro in the Oct. 28 runoff.
His strong showing was a stunning twist in an election that has been marked by high drama, including an assassination attempt against him and an effort by a former president to wage a political campaign from jail. It signals a sharp shift to the right for Latin America’s largest democracy.
“We have to stop flirting with communism and socialism,” Bolsonaro said in a Facebook Live video after partial results were announced. He also said that possible electoral fraud may have kept him from winning outright, a claim rejected by electoral authorities.
The race has splintered a country racked by anxiety over rising violence, high unemployment and corruption that has extended to the highest levels of politics.
“I’m not surprised that this is how it ended up,” said Carlos Alberto, a 60-year-old security guard who voted for Bolsonaro. “This country needs a crazy person to make change. Maybe he’s that person.”
Bolsonaro, who served more than 20 years in Congress and is one of the rare Brazilian politicians not under investigation for corruption, sought to capitalize on anger at the status quo, railing against graft and the Workers’ Party that he blames for Brazil’s rising crime and economic downturn. His blunt style and populist rhetoric have drawn comparisons to President Trump.
He has a history of disparaging remarks about women (he once told a fellow congresswoman that she was “too ugly to rape”), Afro-Brazilians (“They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more”) and members of the LGBTQ community (“I would rather have my son die in an accident than show up with a man with a big mustache”).
Bolsonaro has justified the use of torture, vowed to loosen gun laws “so every citizen will have a firearm at home” and has pledged to give police a mandate to shoot to kill — a tough-on-crime message that has resonated with many voters.
“We can’t go on worrying that we’ll be robbed every time we walk down the street,” said Victor Tavares Oliva Ghiu, an unemployed 20-year-old who cast a ballot for Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo. “Bolsonaro is going to make sure people can be armed so they can protect themselves.”
His mother, Maria Aracy Tavares Oliva, also voted for Bolsonaro. Earlier this year, she was carjacked while driving with her mother on a major Sao Paulo street.
“It was terrifying,” said Oliva, a 55-year-old veterinarian. “I have hope that with Bolsonaro, things will change.”
Bolsonaro’s opponents say he would return Brazil to the days of military dictatorship, and recent attack ads have compared him to Adolf Hitler. Last week, hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets against him.
Monica Oliveira, a 29-year-old who works in the arts, took part in the protest and voted for Haddad on Sunday.
“Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen to this country,” she said outside a polling station in Sao Paulo. “He represents the end of our rights and a return to more violence. If we vote somebody like that in, it’s like giving him permission to walk all over us. It’s like we’re saying violence is OK.”
Support for Bolsonaro grew after he was stabbed in the stomach at a campaign rally Sept. 6. The candidate was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, and continued to campaign from his hospital bed via videos posted to social media. Police say the motive of the stabbing is unclear.
The incident was another twist in the most turbulent election campaign in memory.
Just a few months ago, the Workers' Party appeared set to reclaim the presidency, which it lost in 2016 when Dilma Rousseff was impeached on charges of manipulating the federal budget to try to conceal the country’s financial woes.
Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who left office in 2010 with approval ratings near 90%, ran again this year, despite the fact that he is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the so-called Car Wash corruption scheme involving Brazil’s state-run oil company.
Polls in late August showed Lula as the clear front-runner, with 39% of the vote. Many Brazilians associate him with the country’s surging economic growth during the late aughts, before the onslaught of the 2014 recession.
But Lula was declared ineligible to run because of a law that bars people convicted of crimes from running for election for eight years after they are released, and he abandoned his campaign in September.
The Workers' Party replaced him with Haddad. Relatively unknown outside Sao Paulo, where he served as mayor, Haddad has not inspired the same level of enthusiasm as Bolsonaro, in part, perhaps, because he does not conjure the same happy memories of Brazil’s economic boom years.
Brian Winter, vice president for policy at the Council of the Americas think tank, described Bolsonaro’s victory as “a direct backlash against everything that's been happening over the last four years: corruption, crime, unemployment … basically the complete destruction of the Brazilian dream.”
He said Bolsonaro is capitalizing on a global shift toward right-leaning populists and compared Bolsonaro’s security proposals with those of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, who is accused of ordering thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of his war on drugs.
“Far from being a deal breaker, all of his rhetoric about turning loose police on criminals is exactly what voters want to hear,” Winter said of Bolsonaro.
In Bolsonaro, “they see somebody who is strong enough to change the status quo,” Winter said.
Many voters have lost faith in Brazil’s institutions all together, a feeling of disillusionment fueled by the Car Wash scandal, in which executives at the state oil company were found to have accepted bribes from construction companies in exchange for large contracts. The Workers’ Party was one of several parties found to have used some of those funds to pay off politicians, and has become the party most closely associated with the scandal.
A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center found that only 8% of Brazilians think representative democracy is a “very good” form of government, the lowest of 38 countries surveyed. The same survey found that nearly 39% of respondents think military rule would be good for Brazil.
Alessandro Vieira Sampaio, a 37-year-old sushi chef in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a city on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, cast a blank ballot Sunday to protest what he called a broken system.
“All politicians lie,” he said. “They all try to fool us. Nothing is going to change.”
Langlois, a special correspondent, reported from Sao Paulo. Linthicum, a staff writer, reported from Mexico City.