Brazilian presidential politics have spiraled into chaos. What’s a voter to do?

Hundreds of thousand of Brazilians demonstrated against the extreme right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro with the motto #EleNão (#NotHim) in Sao Paulo on Saturday. Credit: Gustavo Basso / NurPhoto, via Getty Images

The New York Times
Oct 2., 2018

by Vanessa Barbara
Contributing Opinion Op-ed Writer

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil — Last month, just a few weeks before voting day, Cabo Daciolo announced a new strategy for the presidential elections here: He would spend 21 days in the mountains fasting and praying.

Mr. Daciolo is one of a dozen candidates on the ballot for the first-round of the elections, which will take place Sunday, and hilltop retreats aren’t his only unconventional election strategy: He recorded a video asking his supporters to stop donating money to his campaign and, instead, to pray for the country. One of his priorities, he says, is to protect Brazil from the domination of “the bankers, the New World Order, the Illuminati and the Freemasonry.” Mr. Daciolo has also boldly denounced plans for the establishment of Ursal, the Union of Socialist Republics of Latin America — a supposed conspiracy to suppress all borders between our countries in order to make one single Communist Latin American nation, which is, um, not a thing.

Brazilians are bracing for the end of a peculiar election period.

Another candidate, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the front-runner in the polls — up until at least a month ago, when his eligibility was rejected by the Supreme Electoral Court — has been in prison since April. Mr. da Silva, one of the most popular politicians in Brazil’s history, is serving a 12-year prison term for corruption and money laundering.

But his trial was controversial. About three-quarters of Brazilians think that powerful people just want to keep him out of the election, according to a survey by Ipsos, a research company. His supporters consider Mr. da Silva, the most prominent politician in the left-leaning Workers’ Party, a victim of a biased judicial system. They say the evidence against him was weak, largely based on unreliable testimony obtained through plea bargains.

In August, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, a panel of independent experts, requested that the government “take all necessary measures to ensure that Lula can enjoy and exercise his political rights while in prison.” According to the experts, Mr. da Silva should be allowed to run as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections, “until his appeals before the courts have been completed in fair judicial proceedings.” Under the so-called Clean Slate Law, approved in 2010 by Mr. da Silva himself, candidates are barred from holding public office for eight years if a criminal conviction has been upheld on appeal. (Mr. da Silva’s conviction was upheld by a three-judge panel in January.)

Mr. da Silva was officially kicked out of the race at the end of August. The Workers’ Party has put forward a substitute, the former São Paulo mayor and national education minister Fernando Haddad, but Mr. Haddad has less than four weeks to present himself and his case to voters. In some regions of the country, Mr. Haddad is so unknown that voters have referred to him, not infrequently, by seemingly random other names, such as “Mr. Andrade” and “Mr. Adauto.”

The new front-runner in the polls is a former military officer, Jair Bolsonaro. He is a far-right candidate promising political renewal despite having served seven terms as a federal congressman. In 26 years, he wrote 171 bills, of which two became law. (He also proposed and won passage of a constitutional amendment requiring electronic voting machines to issue a paper receipt.)

He acknowledges that he has only a “superficial understanding” of economics, but this hardly matters to his voters, who love him despite — or is it because of? — his multiple remarks insulting women, blacks, gays, refugees and indigenous people. Mr. Bolsonaro has recently been spared by the Supreme Court from a charge of inciting hatred, but was ordered to pay a female lawmaker after he said in a newspaper interview that she was “very ugly” and not “worth raping.”

Despite his provocative rhetoric, it was startling when, on Sept. 6, Mr. Bolsonaro was stabbed during a campaign rally. The assailant claimed to be following the orders of God. The candidate suffered serious abdominal injuries and spent 23 days hospitalized. (The stabbing had little effect on polls.)

Mr. Bolsonaro is nostalgic for the years when Brazil was a dictatorship; he’s been crusading for a return to military rule for more than two decades. “We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy,” he said back in 1993. A recent article in The Economist called him, accurately, “a threat to democracy.” Last month, he made a live video from his hospital bed in which he cast doubt on Brazil’s electronic voting system. “In the second round, the major worry is not losing the vote, but losing to fraud,” he said. There is a concern that he might not accept the results of the election if he loses.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s voter rejection level, at 42 percent, is the highest of all the candidates, according to recent data from the polling firm Ibope. It’s so high that a Facebook group called Mulheres Unidas Contra Bolsonaro (Women United Against Bolsonaro) gathered 2.5 million members in a couple of weeks. On Twitter, the hashtag #EleNão (NotHim) quickly went viral. But rejection levels for the Workers’ Party and Mr. Haddad are also strong, at 29 percent, especially among elites.

So we have a candidate who has been praying in the mountains, an ex-candidate in prison, one whose name no one can remember, and another who may be plotting against democracy.

Personally, I would love to vote for the 36-year-old social activist Guilherme Boulos, one of the main leaders of Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement and a new force on the left. His priority is combating social inequality by enacting progressive tax reform while increasing public investment in infrastructure, housing, health care and education. His agenda is way more radical and less compromising than the one of the Workers’ Party.

But, according to polls, fewer Brazilians intend to vote for him than even the monastic Cabo Daciolo, with his concerns about the Freemasonry and the Illuminati. Under Brazilian election rules, there will be a second-round runoff between the two top candidates if no one wins a majority of votes on Sunday. So what is a social-justice-loving Brazilian who doesn’t want to see her country set back by decades to do? At the moment, the best option for tactical voting is Mr. Andrade.

I mean, Mr. Haddad.

But it’s a pity to see that, even in such an odd election contest, more people will still vote for delusions than leftist ideals.

Ms. Barbara is an author and a contributing opinion writer. 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: In Brazil, Delusions of Democracy.