Brazil will likely elect on Sunday a far-right nationalist president with a history of homophobic, misogynistic and racist remarks, but one who has flourished as the country has been rocked by corruption scandals, economic downturn and rising violence.
Former army captain Jair Bolsonaro – who openly praises Brazil’s military dictatorship, has defended torture and extrajudicial police killings – looks set to join a rising global trend of authoritarian populists.
“What is at stake is not democracy. What is at stake is the perpetuation of this rotten machine that we have there that lives off corruption, that takes away your medical care, education, security,” Bolsonaro said via a Facebook live protest on Saturday night.
His outspoken political incorrectness draws comparisons with US President Donald Trump, while his hard line law and order stance recalls Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte whose war against drugs has left thousands dead.
|Presidential candidate Haddad has seen more support in recent polls, but it likely won’t be enough to win [Nacho Doce/Reuters]
“You have a real risk of authoritarian tendencies,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.
“It really depends on what extent the judiciary and legislature are able and willing to push back. This is something to watch,” he said.
Bolsonaro has pledged to loosen gun laws and give police greater rights to kill suspects in a bid to tackle violent crime, policies that have resonated with many voters in a country that saw nearly 64,000 homicides last year.
A seven-term elected congressman, Bolsonaro has successively cast himself as a political outsider free from the corrupt establishment of capital, Brasilia.
Earlier this week, Trump’s former chief strategist and global conservative activist Steve Bannon described Bolsonaro as “brilliant” in an interview with BBC Brasil.
Bolsonaro looks set for a comfortable win over his centre-left rival Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party, with latest opinion poll on Saturday night by polling agency Datafolha giving him a lead of 55 percent of intended votes to Haddad’s 45 percent.
Polls are set to open at 8am (11:00 GMT) on Sunday and will close at 5pm (20:00 GMT) with results expected four hours later.
It’s been a bitter election replete with drama, including a near fatal failed assassination attempt against Bolsonaro, a reported fake news network sponsored by financial backers and scores of reports of electoral violence committed by alleged supporters.
On Saturday evening, Brazil’s former Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot weighed into the debate on Twitter: “I cannot allow a cheap discourse of intolerance. By exclusion I vote Haddad,” he posted.
Also on Saturday evening, 23-year-old Charlione Lessa Albuquerque was shot and killed while taking part in a pro-Haddad event in the north-eastern capital of Fortaleza.
Police are investigating allegations that the shots were fired by a man who declared himself a Bolsonaro supporter, the UOL news site reported.
“This Sunday, I count on your vow to regain the breath of democracy, to ward off the ghosts of dictatorship, of hatred and of violence,” Haddad tweeted.
Haddad’s Workers’ Party won Brazil’s past four elections. One of its founders, the popular former president Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, led opinion polls for the presidential race until he was barred from running following his conviction and imprisonment in a corruption case.
While almost certainly poised for victory, many questions remain on how Bolsonaro would rule Brazil, where a powerful congress, that has decided the fate of two presidents since 2016, has traditionally been governed via pragmatic opportunism rather than ideology.
“The main obstacle for Bolsonaro’s government will be achieving and maintaining governability,” said Lucas de Aragao, a political scientist and risk analyst at Arko Advice, a Brasilia-based consultancy.
“While tossing out the rulebook with the electorate might work, tossing out the rulebook with congress might not.”