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Jair Bolsonaro, Lula reflect Brazil’s election chaos

September 9, 2018

It says something about Brazil’s political predicament these days that the two personalities dominating the perplexing presidential campaign just weeks before the vote are, respectively, in prison and in intensive care.

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the iconic stalwart of the continent’s left now serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption, remains the clear front-runner but will most likely be kept off the ballot.

Jair Bolsonaro, the polarizing conservative congressman widely known as “Brazil’s Trump,” lies in a Sao Paulo hospital recovering from a serious stomach would he sustained when he was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while campaigning last week in the small city of Juiz de Fora in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

The bizarre attack, captured on numerous videos, introduces yet another layer of uncertainty and unpredictability to a race in Latin America’s largest and most populous country that Brazilian voters hoped would provide a measure of stability after years of scandal, economic decline, a presidential impeachment and widespread dissatisfaction with the administration of outgoing President Michel Temer.

Mr. Bolosonaro’s supporters are already predicting the attack and his expected recovery could boost his chances in the first round of voting, set for Oct. 7. A runoff of the top two candidates will be held three weeks later if no candidate wins a majority.

“I just want to send a message to the thugs who tried to ruin the life of a family man, a guy who is the hope for millions of Brazilians: You just elected him president. He will win in the first round,” Flavio Bolsonaro, the candidate’s son, told the Reuters news agency Friday.

But analysts say the problem looming over the vote remains that neither da Silva nor Mr. Bolsonaro has a clear path to the Planalto Palace, the executive office in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, and likely will be sidelined by even less-popular rivals.

Once a superstar of the Latin American left, da Silva, whom most Brazilians know simply as “Lula,” has been caught up in Brazil’s sprawling political corruption scandals. He and his supporters insist on his innocence, but da Silva “likely will be kept from running,” said Paulo Roberto de Almeida, director of the IPRI think tank linked to Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“He is simply not eligible” because of his conviction, Mr. de Almeida said.

Even before the knife attack, Mr. Bolsonaro an outspoken law-and-order conservative and a prime rival to da Silva, was all but guaranteed to survive the first round, polls suggest. His problem, analysts say, is what comes after that. He attracted 22 percent of the vote in a recent poll, but nearly twice that number say they would never vote for him.

“Who will be his opponent? That’s where all the doubts lie,” Mr. de Almeida said. “He would lose against practically all others, except the candidate who would replace President Lula” if he is banned.

Confusion and uncertainty

The result is extraordinary confusion and uncertainty with less than a month to go before the vote. Candidates such as leftist Ciro Gomes, pro-business Geraldo Alckmin, environmentalist Marina Silva, and even Fernando Haddad da Silva’s protege, running mate and likely stand-in all have a shot at the top prize.

“Any one [of them] could win,” said Mr. de Almeida. “It’s a totally schizophrenic political system.”

Mr. Gomes, from left-leaning northeastern Brazil, has promised da Silva-like welfare programs. Mr. Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor, has yet to overcome a bland profile as a placeholder for the imprisoned leader.

Ms. Silva, like Mr. Gomes and Mr. Haddad once a member of da Silva’s Cabinet, is viewed as a single-issue candidate touting her environmental platform. Mr. Alckmin would likely uphold Mr. Temer’s pro-market course.

But all seems to hinge on the biggest unknown: the fate of da Silva, who remains mired in a protracted legal battle over whether he can run after all.

Brazil’s top election court has ruled that the “clean slate” provision he signed into law keeps him from returning to the Planalto Palace because his conviction has been upheld on appeal.

But da Silva’s Workers’ Party, known by its Portuguese acronym PT, defiantly refuses to move Mr. Haddad to the top of the ticket until Brazil’s Supreme Court weighs in on his eligibility probably sometime this month.

“There’s a sense of persecution,” Marcio Pochmann, who heads the party-backed Perseu Abramo Foundation, said in an interview. “The electoral court’s decision doesn’t limit the PT’s plans [of making] Lula its candidate.”

Behind the scenes, the PT knows all too well that it’s a lost battle, Mr. de Almeida said, and party elders mostly want to string along the former president’s fervently loyal base of voters as long as possible.

“It’s a Workers’ Party tactic because he is very popular,” Mr. de Almeida said. But “this division in the country Lula or no Lula somewhat contaminates the political game.”

Da Silva’s candidacy has been complicated by his personal legal woes and by the impeachment and removal of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. A former top aide and chief of staff to da Silva, Rousseff’s downfall set off a long period of political paralysis even as the country’s long economic boom was crashing to an end.

Prime beneficiary

A prime beneficiary of the left’s troubles has been Mr. Bolsonaro, the 63-year-old former paratrooper who has managed the unlikely feat of uniting embittered political rivals in rejection of the political status quo.

The firebrand candidate of the minuscule Social Liberal Party has long waded from one controversy to the next, but his anti-establishment message has catapulted him to second place behind da Silva in polls taken before last week’s stabbing incident.

But what his agenda is beyond a determination to crack down on crime and civil disorder is far from clear.

“Bolsonaro presents himself as a kind of Brazilian Trump, which of course he isn’t,” Mr. de Almeida said. “He isn’t a Brazilian [Emmanuel] Macron either.” Mr. Macron is the French centrist who defied his country’s traditional political parties to win the presidency in April 2016.

Mr. Bolsonaro is described as “pragmatic” or “opportunistic” depending on whom one asks.

That he easily ditched his big-government views for a pro-market platform makes it difficult to predict what a Bolsonaro presidency would look like, analysts say.

The mere fact that a “dark figure” like Mr. Bolsonaro is on the verge of making it to a presidential runoff is a testament to the disruptive impact of Brazil’s yearslong political crisis, Mr. Pochmann said.

“There is a, let’s say, fascist element in our society that Bolsonaro represents very well,” he said. “He is a character without any commitment to democracy.”

But Brazilian voters may be more ready to break the mold since Rousseff’s downfall and a grinding economic crisis that her successors have failed to reverse, Mr. Pochmann said.

The chaotic state of the campaign so far has not put a halt on retail politics, and all sides now seem focused on the critical TV time, which in Brazil is allocated according to party size.

It’s an opportunity for Mr. Alckmin, whose Brazilian Social Democracy Party controls screens for about five minutes per day.

Most of his challengers, meanwhile, have to make due with less than a minute, and Mr. Bolsonaro who consequently will rely on his strong presence on social media with a mere eight seconds.

Da Silva’s legal limbo has produced its own curious dynamic: The ex-president is prominently featured in PT campaign ads, though, for the time being only as a spokesman for his running mate, per an order from the country’s electoral commission.

PT leaders are confident that if Mr. Haddad survives the first round, then a televised endorsement would be the key to boosting his less-than-ideal numbers before the Oct. 28 runoff.

Given Brazil’s seemingly never-ending political and economic dual crisis, though, a few might wonder what makes the move into the Planalto appealing at this stage.

On all fronts, the unknown man or woman to succeed the deeply unpopular Mr. Temer who started out as Rousseff’s vice president before he helped oust her will face a tough road toward restoring anything resembling normalcy.

“Whoever will be president starting in January center, left or right will have a terrible fiscal problem,” Mr. de Almeida said. “So it’s difficult to see how we’ll overcome the economic crisis with a political crisis.”

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