73ºF

Far-right candidate likely to win Brazil's presidential election

Experts say Jair Bolsonaro is front-runner going into Sunday's election

RIO DE JANEIRO – When the political ads come on TV in the Higa household these days, everyone wishes to be somewhere else.

Eike Higa is gay and plans to vote for the left-wing candidate, Fernando Haddad, in Brazil’s upcoming presidential runoff. But his parents might vote for Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right congressman who has made comments offensive to gay people.

Higa tries not to take it personally. He said he has a good relationship with his parents, with whom he lives in Sao Paulo. But “in a political climate like this one, the old insecurities always surface again.”

Across Brazil, a particularly polarizing election has divided families and friends and left some wondering if the rift will permanently change the political and cultural landscape of Latin America’s largest country.

The tension “has manifested itself with vibrant colors in this moment,” said Ana Claudia Duarte Rocha Marques, an anthropology professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “It was a defuse thing that became acute.” And it might not fade for years.

Brazil’s media behemoth Globo took on the subject of families and friends who fight over politics in chat groups on the ubiquitous messaging service WhatsApp. The report noted that tweets using the phrases “I left the family group” or “fight in the family group” started to surge in August, as the campaign officially got underway.

In some cases, the election has merely made raw the political divisions that relatives always knew existed.

Tamara Miranda, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in Rio Claro in Sao Paulo state, said she and her stepfather always disagreed on politics. She is on the left, and he is on the right. It just somehow never mattered as much as now.

For others, the particularities of this election — the complete disappearance of the Brazilian center, leading to a runoff between two candidates with high rejection rates — have led people to stick up for politicians they might not otherwise defend.

For decades, Brazilian presidential elections were largely a contest between the center-right and center-left parties. The emphasis on achieving consensus was high since Congress was typically fractured by more than a dozen parties.

But that old peace has frayed. The discontent, according to Marques and others, began in 2014, when then-President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was re-elected after a bitter campaign and the economy began to tank. Rousseff was impeached and removed from office two years later.

When her vice president, Michel Temer, took over and implemented market-friendly economic reforms, the idea that right-leaning forces in Congress had staged a palace coup took hold.

In parallel, a sprawling corruption investigation was unfolding, leading to the jailing of scores of politicians involved in schemes to dole out public contracts and other favors for billions in bribes and kickbacks.

There, too, many on the left cried foul, arguing that the judicial system seemed much more eager to pursue charges against Workers’ Party politicians than others. Those on the right, meanwhile, interpreted the imbalance differently, believing that the Workers’ Party had simply brought a new dimension to such graft.

Thus, the rift began to open, stoked by massive street protests and social media, including the rise of fake news.

The result has been an exceptionally polarized presidential campaign. Bolsonaro was stabbed last month at a rally and suffered serious abdominal wounds. There have been numerous reports of politically motivated violence. The words “Nazi” and “fascist” are lobbed frequently.

Bolsonaro has a substantial lead in the polls but has disgusted many with derogatory comments about minorities and his praise for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

Many people, including some in the Higa household, feel trapped by the choices. Eike’s mother, Simone, said she voted for a conservative candidate who got few votes in the first round, and she’s determined to keep the Workers’ Party from power. But she is still struggling with the choice she will have to make on Sunday.

She is reluctant to vote for Bolsonaro, but she also doesn’t want “to elect Lula again,” she said, referring to former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has been convicted of corruption and jailed but who many allege will be pulling the strings if Haddad is elected.

Voting in Brazil is mandatory, but voters can choose “blank” in the booth or enter a non-existent candidate code. When asked if she was considering going that route, the 50-year-old small business owner said: “If I throw away my vote, I could be electing Lula again, and the work of the federal police would be all in vain.”

She said she knows how her son feels and that her concerns about Bolsonaro are exactly because Eike is gay. But Eike himself said he has been loath to confront his parents about their vote.

“I feel let down,” the 27-year-old said. “I feel really sad to know that even if they were voting strategically to block the Workers’ Party, they are indirectly supporting a person who is against me, against what I am.”

Things are more heated in Miranda’s family. She said she considers her stepfather “more of a father than my father.” But the two have fought bitterly about politics, particularly his support for Bolsonaro. She declined to put The Associated Press in contact with him.

But the divisions in her family are not limited to that conflict. The day after the first round of voting, she left the family WhatsApp group when the messages celebrating Bolsonaro’s strong showing became too much.

Miranda’s brother, Taruma Lomba, acknowledges things sometimes get intense at family gatherings and on WhatsApp. But the siblings have largely agreed to disagree. The 32-year-old information systems analyst from the southeastern city of Belo Horizonte plans to vote for Bolsonaro in round 2, though without much conviction.

“Even though this horrible climate has emerged in Brazil, of divisions, we at least have woken up to see what was happening,” he said.

The issues

Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman who is the front-runner going into Brazil’s presidential runoff election Sunday, has gained notoriety for making disparaging comments about gays, blacks and women and for waxing nostalgic about the country’s 1964-1985 dictatorship. But he has moderated his stances during his campaign.

Some of his most controversial statements, and how he has backed off them:

___

GAYS

In a 2011 interview with Playboy magazine, Bolsonaro said he would be “incapable of loving a homosexual son,” and added that he would prefer his son to “die in an accident” than to show up with a “bearded” partner.

On several occasions, he has said children should be spanked so they do not become gay, and in 2002 he said he would beat up any men he saw kissing on the street.

During the campaign, Bolsonaro has argued that he is not homophobic. He says he does not oppose gay people but rather the “gay kit” — the pejorative nickname given to canceled educational materials that a leftist government considered introducing to reduce homophobia in public schools in 2011.

Posing with a lesbian supporter at a recent news conference, Bolsonaro disputed claims that he is against homosexuals: “They’re spreading fake news that I will do bad things to them, for the love of God. Who doesn’t have (gay) friends or family members, and wants them to be happy?”

___

BLACKS

Bolsonaro caused an outcry last year when he said in a speech that the slave descendants living in Brazil’s “quilombo” settlements are fat, lazy and “not even good enough to procreate.”

In a 2011 interview on Band television channel, he was asked how he would react if his son fell in love with a black woman. “I won’t discuss promiscuity,” he answered. “I don’t run that risk because my sons were very well educated.”

In campaign speeches, Bolsonaro has often spoken of all Brazilians being equal and points to his support of Helio Fernando Barbosa Lopes, a black man who just won a seat in Congress.

Last week, when David Duke, the American white supremacist, declared his approval of Bolsonaro, the Brazilian swiftly tweeted: “I refuse any kind of support coming from supremacist groups.”

___

WOMEN

Bolsonaro twice told congresswoman Maria do Rosario that she did not “deserve” to be raped by him after she called him a rapist during heated arguments in 2003 and 2014. He repeated the comments to the newspaper Zero Horas in a 2014 interview: “She is very ugly. She is not my type. I would never rape her.”

Last year, Bolsonaro drew criticism for a speech in which he said that after having four sons, he had a daughter “in a moment of weakness.”

Now, his 7-year-old daughter, Laura, is the focus of a campaign video in which a teary-eyed Bolsonaro says she changed his life and the two are seen hugging.

When Bolsonaro announced his candidacy in July, he dedicated part of his speech to women, although some women called the comments patronizing. “We all came from a woman’s womb,” he said. “We wouldn’t even be born if it weren’t for their love.”

___

MILITARY DICTATORSHIP

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has repeatedly shocked many Brazilians by praising the 1964-1985 military dictatorship.

In a 1999 TV interview with Camera Aberta, he supported torture and said elections would not fix the country’s problems. “Unfortunately, things will only change if we start a civil war. And do the job the military dictatorship didn’t do: killing about 30,000,” he said.

During the 2016 vote impeaching President Dilma Rousseff, a torture victim during the dictatorship, Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to Col. Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who led a torture unit.

As recently as July, he told TV Cultura that “there was no military coup in 1964.”

Yet, after winning the biggest block of votes in the presidential election’s first round Oct. 7, he joined with the second-place finisher, leftist Fernando Haddad, in signing a document promising to respect the constitution. The text says the president must respect fundamental rights and ensure freedom of expression.