RIO DE JANEIRO – Embattled incumbent Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro closed out his underdog campaign last night in his home state of Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of enthusiastic Bolsonaro supporters, clad in Brazil’s yellow soccer jerseys, packed the plaza in Campo Grande, a western suburb of Rio de Janeiro.
Amidst scorching heat, which caused a few medical emergencies, popular Brazilian televangelist Silas Malafaia, and Rio de Janeiro Governor Claudio Castro warmed up the crowd. The gathering was part military muster, part campaign rally and part religious revival. The run-off election will be held this Sunday.
Bolsonaro led the crowd in singing patriotic Brazilian military songs, while Castro and others warned of a return of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, and the Workers Party. Malafaia led the crowd in a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer.
Bolsonaro discussed his vision of a return to a Brazil with religious faith.
“I am Catholic, my wife is evangelical, and God has been good to us…I get down on my knees every morning to pray for guidance.”
Bolsonaro stuck to tried and true culture war themes, emphasizing his steadfast social conservatism, and contrasting it with the alleged disorder and chaos posed by a third Lula administration.
“Do we want a country of peace and tranquility, order and progress, or do we want to return to the old corrupt ways that we can expect with the Workers Party…we don’t want the legalization of drugs in Brazil, and we also don’t want gender ideology for our children.”
Bolsonaro also played up the social support provided for poor and working class Brazilians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We created Auxilio Brasil, which pays R$600 per month (roughly USD $120), to substitute for Bolsa Familia, which only paid R$190 a month (roughly USD $38), and those who work will not lose their benefits.”
Referencing his penchant for making politically incorrect statements, Bolsonaro explained.
“A few people say they won’t vote for me because I curse, I say crude things. From time to time, I do this, but I am not a thief.”
Bolsonaro’s plainspoken approach, coupled with an economic rebound, appears to be having some effect. Despite polling last month that widely showed a comfortable victory for Lula, Bolsonaro shocked the nation with a better-than-expected performance in the first round, forcing Lula into a second round run-off election on Oct. 30.
Lula is a longtime union leader and two-term former president who left office as one of Brazil’s most popular leaders. Nonetheless, a series of scandals involving state oil company Petrobras, and construction giant Odebrecht, led to his conviction and imprisonment on corruption and money laundering charges. The Brazilian Supreme Court reversed the conviction on a technicality, clearing the way for Lula to run this year for an unprecedented third term.
Like Bolsonaro, Lula remains a highly polarizing figure. To his supporters, he is a heroic champion for the working class who presided over a period of time in which Brazil’s economic fortunes soared. To his detractors, he epitomizes the culture of corruption and incompetence which saw his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff impeached from office, and swept Bolsonaro into power in 2018, on a promise of clean governance.
Currently, the polls have tightened considerably. However, the gruff former army captain is still trailing by mid single digits in most polls.
If Bolsonaro pulls off an improbable comeback victory, he will likely have Minas Gerais state Governor Romeu Zema to thank. A businessman who ran his family’s large chain of appliance stores before entering politics, Zema is a pivotal figure who, to some degree, stands outside the Bolsonaro/Lula political divide.
Zema faults the Workers Party for incompetent and harmful governance at both the state and national level.
“The Workers Party claims to be the party of social justice, but if we analyze it coldly, rationally, it is really the party of impoverishment… I have a great fear when talking about the Workers Party. The only thing they know how to do well is to deceive the people with beautiful words….but when it comes to solving problems, they are lacking.”
His Partido Novo, or New Party, is often categorized as a libertarian or classical liberal party, but Zema views it differently.
“I would say that we are a right-wing party, but we don’t get involved in the debate over social issues. This question of social issues depends on each individual’s point of view. For me it’s wasting time…I don’t want to know about your personal life.”
Zema is currently the only governor from his party in the nation, and his ideology diverges, in this sense, from the Bolsonaro movement’s social views.
His economic focus is an approach to efficient and effective government that has made him one of the most popular governors in the country, as he won election in the famously mercurial bellwether state, with 56% of the vote.
No president in Brazilian history has won office without winning his state of Minas Gerais. The vote-rich state, Brazil’s second largest, also went for Lula in the first round by a narrow margin. Zema is seeking to change that.
“In the case of the candidate Lula, there was an image that between 2003 and 2010, in the eight years he was president, his administration did a good job, but this image is just propaganda, it didn’t actually exist.”
Zema emphasizes his belief that Lula wasted the opportunity he was given by the Brazilian people.
“During the Lula government, we had all the conditions necessary to carry out reforms: pension reform, administrative reform, political reform…he had a political base in Congress, he had popularity, he had credibility, and what did he do? Nothing!”
However, Zema is a big fan of the market-friendly reforms advocated by Minister of Economy Paulo Guedes.
“I like Minister Paulo Guedes. I appreciate his work. I know he would have liked to do much more, but as I am a governor, I know very well how slow processes within the government structure are.”
He argues that battling Brazil’s institutions is difficult, but “we are moving in the right direction, not with the desired speed, but we are moving, and we’ve made some progress. We had a pension reform in the Bolsonaro government.”
Looking at electoral math, just three of Brazil’s 26 states comprise 40% of its population, Sao Paulo with 22%, Minas Gerais with 12% and Rio de Janeiro with 8%.
Bolsonaro must win these states, and by large margins, particularly in Sao Paulo, to compensate for Lula’s enormous vote tallies in the Workers Party stronghold of the Northeast region, where he is likely to win states like Bahia, Ceara, and his native Pernambuco by margins of 30, or even 40 points.
The North/South divide is enormous in Brazil, and this dividing line, in a sense, runs through Minas Gerais. The southern and western parts bordering Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo tend more towards Bolsonaro, while Lula fares better in the northern part of Minas Gerais, bordering Bahia.
Some believe that Zema may be harboring presidential ambitions. That calculation will greatly depend on who wins this weekend, but Zema appears to be a candidate who has some appeal to both Bolsonaro and Lula voters, and has a proven track record of success both in the private sector, and in government presiding over a state of 20 million people.