The challenge for Brazil's presidential candidates: overcoming voter rejection

3 min

Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

Brazil's far-right and leftist candidates dueling for the presidency could not be further apart in terms of politics, promises and personality. But there's one thing they share: big, immovable blocs of voters virulently opposed to seeing one or the other take power.

The reasons for the rejection are different.

Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right 63-year-old former paratrooper and long-serving member of congress, is detested by as many Brazilians as those who support him.

He has made chilling comments demeaning women and blacks, making light of rape, criticizing gays, favoring torture and expressing nostalgia for the military dictatorship that brutally ruled between 1964 and 1985.

Fernando Haddad, 55, is seen by many -- especially better-off Brazilians -- as representing a corrupt and incompetent Workers Party that was in charge between 2003 and 2016 when the country experienced a boom then a devastating bust.

Anti-Bolsonaro activists -- women prominent among them -- hold protests and post online slogans declaring "Not Him."

Anti-Haddad voters focus the hate they have against ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whom he stepped in for only a month ago after Lula -- in prison for bribery and money laundering -- was disqualified from making a comeback.

- Election violence -

A spate of violent incidents reported in the Brazilian media since last weekend's first round election have crystalized fears that the febrile atmosphere around the candidates is tipping the country into dangerous territory.

Many of the incidents involve Bolsonaro backers targeting Haddad supporters for assault and threats.

On Monday, a 63-year-old man was stabbed to death in a bar in northeastern Salvador for reportedly saying Brazilians preferred the Workers Party.

"Bolsonaro isn't going to kill a transgender person. He's not going to beat up a black with his own hands. But his discourse is going to legitimize other people to do so," read an online comment by Duda Rodrigues.

Both candidates sent out tweets disavowing the violence and calling for it to stop.

Bolsonaro, running on a law-and-order platform, easily came out ahead in the first round with 46 percent of the vote to Haddad's 29 percent.

A Datafolha voter intention survey published Wednesday credited him with 58 percent support, to 42 percent for the leftist candidate.

Bolsonaro's main pillars of support are better-educated, better-off male Brazilians and millions who follow Brazil's burgeoning evangelical churches.

Haddad's support is concentrated in the poorer, blacker northeast of the country, where many are still grateful to Lula for poverty-reduction successes.

But both suffer major voter rejection, of over 40 percent according to the Datafolha poll.

That makes for extreme polarization, pointing to difficulty to govern for whoever wins the presidency.

- Broadening appeal -

Both candidates are reaching out to the center to bolster their support.

Bolsonaro on Thursday called elected members of his ultraconservative Social Liberal Party and other deputies backing him to Rio to show the level of backing he has.

Haddad was trying to woo Brazil's influential Catholic bishops, and also discretely dropped images of Lula and the Workers Party signature red color from his campaign material.

A political analyst at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Jairo Nicolau, noted that the Workers Party, known by its initials PT in Portuguese, had been "the most punished" in the election.

"For voters who didn't benefit -- or don't remember benefiting from -- the PT era, the PT is above all linked to corruption," he said.

That meant Haddad had to put distance between himself and Lula, including by saying he would no longer make weekly visits to see the incarcerated ex-leader.

On Thursday, Haddad said he was confident of closing the gap with Bolsonaro.

"We need only eight points to get to 50 (percent of voter intentions). We have two weeks of work to get those eight points," he told journalists in Brasilia.