Knife at­tack can’t stop rise of po­lit­i­cal dis­rupter ‘Brazil’s Trump’ speaks from hos­pi­tal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY FREDERIC PUGLIE

When Brazil­ians heard from their un­likely pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner for the first time since he was stabbed at a cam­paign rally 10 days ear­lier, both sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors agreed that the mes­sage, mood and medium were all clas­sic Jair Bol­sonaro.

In a shaky Face­book video taped by one of his sons, the na­tion­al­ist fire­brand warned against elec­tion-rig­ging, railed against the news me­dia and ac­cused the left­ist Work­ers’ Party (PT) of var­i­ous con­spir­a­cies. He also grudg­ingly al­lowed that its mem­bers were “hu­man be­ings, too.”

As he spoke from his hos­pi­tal bed, the voice of a vis­i­bly shaken Mr. Bol­sonaro seemed to crack al­ter­nately with fa­tigue, emo­tion and anger. But his mes­sage — which has led some to de­scribe him as a South Amer­i­can Don­ald Trump — never wa­vered: Brazil’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is bro­ken, and he alone can fix it.

“What’s at stake? It’s not my fu­ture,” said the wounded can­di­date, who is out of in­ten­sive care but is ex­pected to re­main hos­pi­tal­ized. “We live in a time when the fu­ture of more than 200 mil­lion Brazil­ians is at stake.”

The rise of the 63-year-old con­gress­man has stunned and un­nerved Brazil’s al­ready bat­tered po­lit­i­cal class, which, from left to right, is call­ing Mr. Bol­sonaro a threat to democ­racy.

Polls sug­gest that he will sail past the Oct. 7 vote to face a yet-to-be-de­ter­mined chal­lenger, most likely the PT’s Fer­nando Had­dad, in an Oct. 28 runoff.

How the knife at­tack, caught on video dur­ing a cam­paign stop in the provin­cial city of Juiz de Fora, and his slow re­cu­per­a­tion will af­fect an al­ready scram­bled pres­i­den­tial cam­paign is a big ques­tion, but some say his de­fi­ance and re­silience in the face of grave at­tack can only help him at the polls.

Brazil­ian poll­ster MDA re­ported Mon­day that Mr. Bol­sonaro is the clear fron­trun­ner with 28.2 per­cent of the vote and Mr. Had­dad is sec­ond with 17.6 per­cent. Only cen­ter-left pop­ulist Ciro Gomes, third in the polls for the Oct. 7 vote, is com­pet­i­tive with Mr. Bol­sonaro in a one-on-one matchup.

Long a mar­ginal fig­ure in na­tional pol­i­tics, the former army cap­tain passed through eight par­ties be­fore join­ing the fringe, far-right So­cial Lib­eral Party (PSL) this year. In the 27 years he has rep­re­sented Rio de Janeiro in the House, Mr. Bol­sonaro fre­quently backed the pop­ulist course of former Pres­i­dent Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva, now his po­lit­i­cal neme­sis.

Since then, he has made what Uni­ver­sity of Sao Paulo po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Wag­ner Man­cuso calls a U-turn to­ward a pro-busi­ness plat­form, an about-face that nev­er­the­less doesn’t seem to have less­ened wari­ness in Brazil’s busi­ness class about a Bol­sonaro vic­tory.

The twice-di­vorced Catholic fa­ther of five of­ten made head­lines with his bel­li­cose rhetoric, notably in re­marks dis­play­ing a thinly veiled ad­mi­ra­tion of the military junta, which ruled the coun­try from 1964 to 1985. But amid a mas­sive govern­ment scan­dal and a chaotic elec­toral process, Mr. Bol­sonaro has adroitly turned his tough talk into a ma­jor sell­ing point and picked a con­tro­ver­sial army gen­eral as his run­ning mate.

Many Brazil­ians seem un­fazed by Mr. Bol­sonaro’s brash per­sona, which Mr. Man­cuso sums up as “anti-hu­man rights, misog­y­nis­tic, ho­mo­pho­bic and racist.”

Af­ter years of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic tur­moil, sup­port­ers cel­e­brate Mr. Bol­sonaro’s pledge to clean up what they view as a thor­oughly cor­rupt Brasilia.

“It’s im­pres­sive,” Mr. Man­cuso said. “Bol­sonaro de­fends tor­ture, Bol­sonaro at­tacks women, Bol­sonaro at­tacks ho­mo­sex­u­als — and none of it has an ef­fect on his elec­torate.”

‘Never Bol­sonaro’

But as with Mr. Trump, Mr. Bol­sonaro’s anti-es­tab­lish­ment ap­peal and crock­ery­break­ing rhetor­i­cal style had an ef­fect on an al­ready po­lar­ized elec­torate, with un­likely al­lies unit­ing in a kind of “Never Bol­sonaro” cam­paign. Fu­eled pri­mar­ily by fe­male vot­ers, who are or­ga­niz­ing them­selves by the mil­lions on Face­book, the Bol­sonaro op­po­si­tion has used so­cial me­dia out­lets that had been con­sid­ered the home turf of the so­cial-me­dia-savvy can­di­date.

The back­lash has gen­er­ated a “wave of women” of vastly dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal stripes who have come to­gether to pull their weight in Brazil­ian pol­i­tics, prom­i­nent hu­man rights ac­tivist Deb­ora Diniz, a vis­it­ing fel­low at Yale Law School, told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

With polls sug­gest­ing that Mr. Bol­sonaro is a near lock to qual­ify for the twocan­di­date Oct. 28 run-off, many women will even­tu­ally have to hold their noses to vote for what­ever can­di­date is left stand­ing be­tween him and the pres­i­den­tial Planalto Palace, she sug­gested.

“That’s the po­lit­i­cal strat­egy: We don’t need to have an al­ter­na­tive right now; [rather] we’ll go to the sec­ond round,” Ms. Diniz said. “But right now, we’re united in say­ing ‘no.’”

For Ms. Diniz, founder of the pro­choice Anis In­sti­tute of Bioethics, that could mean check­ing a box next to the name of Ger­aldo Al­ck­min, the cen­ter­right Brazil­ian So­cial Democ­racy Party’s (PSDB) nom­i­nee with ties to the Catholic Church’s ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive Opus Dei.

“Let’s be clear: Any­thing ex­cept [Bol­sonaro],” she said. “And that’s a clear ex­am­ple of the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion we’re in in this coun­try.”

In her par­tic­u­lar case, such wor­ries may be pre­ma­ture. Polling shows Mr. Bol­sonaro is draw­ing much back­ing from dis­grun­tled former PSDB vot­ers, mak­ing a face­off with Mr. Al­ck­min un­likely.

“Bol­sonaro’s strength is very much linked to the PSDB’s weak­ness,” Mr. Man­cuso said. “The sec­ond round will be be­tween Bol­sonaro and Had­dad un­less Al­ck­min can de­stroy Bol­sonaro’s fig­ure, [for which] he still hasn’t found the right way.”

It’s a cal­cu­lus the aca­demic shares with the can­di­date, and Mr. Bol­sonaro on Sun­day firmly turned his fire on the PT, which has con­firmed Mr. Had­dad as its stand-in at the top of the ticket for da Silva, the iconic party founder and former pres­i­dent, whom the courts have de­clared in­el­i­gi­ble af­ter he was given a 12-year prison sen­tence for cor­rup­tion.

Mr. Bol­sonaro’s well-earned out­sider cre­den­tials could give him a clear line of at­tack no mat­ter who emerges as his chal­lenger.

“Would you flatly, calmly, go to jail? … What’s the Plan B of this hope­ful — this man, once poor, who robbed us of all our hope?” he chal­lenged Mr. da Silva. “If Had­dad is elected pres­i­dent, … you know he’ll sign Lula’s par­don the very minute of his in­au­gu­ra­tion.”

All the talk about unit­ing be­hind an es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date, Mr. Bol­sonaro in­sisted — though with­out ev­i­dence — was merely an at­tempt to lay the ground­work to rig the runoff and deny him the pres­i­dency.

“The nar­ra­tive now is that I’d lose the sec­ond round to ev­ery­body,” he said. “The great worry re­ally isn’t los­ing in the vote but los­ing in the fraud.”

Mr. Man­cuso said Mr. Bol­sonaro’s real prob­lem is ba­sic math: He is un­likely to at­tract a ma­jor­ity of the elec­torate once the field is win­nowed down.

“He doesn’t speak for the ma­jor­ity of the Brazil­ian peo­ple,” he said. “[The hard right] both­ers, threat­ens — but still is not in a po­si­tion to win a ma­jor­ity of votes.”

Desta­bi­liz­ing choices

Many worry that a runoff be­tween can­di­dates on the ide­o­log­i­cal ex­tremes could prove desta­bi­liz­ing for Brazil, which is still reel­ing from the po­lit­i­cal bat­tle that im­peached and re­moved Pres­i­dent Dilma Rouss­eff in 2016 and the eco­nomic cri­sis that suc­ces­sor Pres­i­dent Michel Te­mer has been un­able to re­verse.

“A sec­ond round be­tween the far right and the left will un­set­tle the mar­kets, with im­ple­men­ta­tion of pro-busi­ness re­forms un­likely,” Car­los Caicedo, as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor for Latin Amer­ica Coun­try Risk at an­a­lyt­ics data firm IHS Markit, told the Reuters news agency this week.

Even if Brazil’s more than 147 mil­lion vot­ers de­liver a sur­prise next month, Mr. Man­cuso pre­dicts a Bol­sonaro pres­i­dency would be marked by con­flict and could be short-lived.

“The tra­di­tional po­lit­i­cal sys­tem would mount such a strong re­sis­tance against him that he’d likely be ousted,” he said. “Ev­ery­body against him would make it very dif­fi­cult to hang on.”

So in a weak Brazil marked by a seem­ingly never-end­ing po­lit­i­cal melt­down amid a his­toric cor­rup­tion scan­dal, an­a­lysts gen­er­ally agree that the next pres­i­dent may not be named Bol­sonaro — but will be tasked with pre­vent­ing the next Bol­sonaro.

“I be­lieve he has no chance,” Mr. Man­cuso said. “[But] I be­lieve he’s a symp­tom of this cri­sis.”

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