Ultraconservative leads pack vying to be Brazil's next president

3 min

Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

When Brazilians go to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president, one controversial figure will loom over the pack of 13 candidates: Jair Bolsonaro, an ultraconservative former military man promising a Donald Trump-like shakeup of Latin America's biggest economy.

Voter surveys credit him with such a substantial lead that he is expected to go on to an October 28 run-off election against one of two trailing rivals: a leftwinger selected to replace jailed ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as the Workers' Party candidate, or a center-left politician ranked with only an outside chance.

- Jair Bolsonaro -

Like Trump, Bolsonaro, 63, is fond of tough-guy talk eschewing political correctness, using social media to bypass journalistic scrutiny, hailing military men in government, looser gun laws, and projecting an image of an outsider combatting a corrupt and incompetent elite.

But the comparison with the US leader is not entirely accurate: Bolsonaro himself once served in the military as an army captain, is in fact a longstanding member of Brazil's congress, which he joined in 1991, and does not have the backing of a major party.

Still, his shoot-from-the-lip style, vow to completely do over Brazil's big economy, and his polarizing effect on the electorate are what has grabbed the attention.

Statements pillorying gays, denigrating women (he once told a female leftist deputy "she doesn't deserve to be raped because she's very ugly"), dismissing Brazil's large poor black population, and advocating violence to impose political views have engendered visceral opposition.

On September 6, he survived a stabbing while on the campaign trail by a man police said acted alone and out of political motivation.

Yet investors have hopes that Bolsonaro, a Catholic father of five -- born from three relationships -- who has close links to influential evangelical churches, can hoist Brazil out of its economic malaise lingering nearly two years after its worst-ever recession.

His only problem if he becomes president is the lack of legislative support. His right-wing Social Liberal Party currently has just eight seats in the 513-seat lower house and might at best only add a few more in Sunday's general election.

- Fernando Haddad -

Bolsonaro's nearest rival is Fernando Haddad, whom the Workers' Party tapped recently to replace its preferred candidate, iconic ex-president Lula, who was disqualified from a comeback bid because he is serving a 12-year prison term for graft.

Channeling Lula's popularity, 55-year-old Haddad climbed up the survey rankings into second place. But the former mayor of Sao Paulo -- Brazil's biggest city -- and onetime education minister under Lula, has since stalled and struggled to define his own profile.

Worse, he has to carry the baggage of the Workers' Party years in power that are blamed for Brazil's economic mess and much of the corruption. It hasn't helped that Haddad, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, faced corruption accusations linked to his campaign during municipal elections in 2012.

- Ciro Gomes -

Some see Ciro Gomes, a center-leftist who has made two failed presidential attempts in the past, as someone capable of capturing the country's huge leftist vote.

Gomes, 60, is running with the Democratic Labor Party but has failed to garner coalition support from other leftist parties, leaving him isolated.

He is seen as a volatile personality with a history of lashing out in colorful language at everyone from Lula and outgoing President Michel Temer to the country's police.

He has also failed to attract many of Lula's supporters, leaving him a distant third behind Haddad.