Sao Paulo, Brazil – Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday to elect their next president, with most signs suggesting that South America’s most populous nation will elect a far-right ex-army captain who many fear will catapult it into a new era of authoritarian rule.
An opinion poll released on Thursday by the Datafolha polling agency showed that Jair Bolsonaro‘s lead might have fallen by three percentage points, but the 63-year-old was still comfortably ahead in the race, with 56 percent of voter support.
His runoff rival, Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), was at 44 percent.
Bolsonaro is an outspoken supporter of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship that executed hundreds of political opponents and tortured thousands more. In the past, he has praised the regimes of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Peru’s former authoritarian President Alberto Fujimori.
“These red (leftist) criminals will be banished from our homeland,” Bolsonaro said in an impassioned and confrontational speech last week, which was broadcast live to thousands of supporters.
“It will be a cleansing like never before seen in the history of Brazil.”
Bolsonaro also has a long history of disparaging remarks about LGBT people, women and minorities, as well as statements in favour of torture and police extrajudicial killings, including a pledge to give police “carte blanche” to kill suspects.
“For the first time in 32 years of exercising the right to vote, a candidate inspires me to fear,” Joaquim Barbosa, Brazil’s former Supreme Court justice chief, wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning.
“That is why I will vote for Fernando Haddad,” added Barbosa, who six months ago was tipped to possibly be the country’s first black president.
Earlier this week, leading international intellectuals including Noam Chomsky released a statement, saying a Bolsonaro victory “threatens the world, not just Brazil’s fledgeling democracy”.
“His programmes for the country, if applied, would be very profitable for investors and the super-rich at the expense of the population considered to be worthless,” Chomsky was quoted in Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
In response, Bolsonaro wrote on Friday to his more than eight million Facebook followers: “I represent a threat, yes, to the corrupt, the bandit, the rapists, the schemes that assault the BNDES (Brazil’s development bank), the assassins and those who want to destroy Brazil!”
Bolsonaro’s meteoric rise from a fringe congressman to the edge of the presidency has come against a backdrop of economic downturn, political turmoil, mammoth corruption scandals and rising violence. Last year, there were more than 63,000 homicides in Brazil.
On the eve of Brazil’s last presidential elections in 2014, which saw PT candidate Dilma Rousseff narrowly winning re-election against her centre-right opponent Aceio Neves, Brazil had just hosted a successful World Cup, had been removed from the United Nations World Hunger Map and unemployment was at a record low.
But in the years that followed Brazil plunged into deep recession, while the far-reaching “Car Wash” corruption scandal picked up steam and toppled dozens of political and business elites.
Rousseff was controversially impeached in 2016, and her right-wing successor Michel Temer was racked by scandal. Meanwhile, Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s most popular politician and a former president, was jailed earlier this year on corruption charges, which he and his supporters called politically motivated.
Now, as the country prepares to vote, extreme poverty is on the increase and unemployment remains stubbornly high at 12.1 percent, despite some recent positive signs.
“The left vote has remained strong, despite falling considerably, while the extreme right has grown with voters who were moderate, were centre right, but have now radicalised,” according to Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist and professor of international relations at the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
Commenting on Bolsonaro’s rise, Santoro noted: “It’s a combination of Operation Car Wash, which hit all of the major parties, and the economic crisis.”
Diego da Silva de Lima, a 28-year-old marketing analyst from Sao Paulo, said he would pick Bolsonaro on Sunday because he sees him “as the best candidate to take on the corrupt establishment”.
But while many Brazilians say they have placed their hopes for change and a break from the system on the former army captain, many others are not convinced.
One of them is Alaide Oliveira Santos. The 63-year-old Sao Paulo retiree said she is considering backing Haddad, despite never having voted for PT before.
“Things are bad and if this Bolsonaro gets in, they will only get worse,” she said.
Polls open at 8am local time (11:00 GMT) and close at 5pm (20:00 GMT).