Polls in Brazil signal late tightening in presidential election race

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro still clear frontrunner but his advantage has slipped

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, far-right presidential candidate. Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, far-right presidential candidate. Photograph: Sergio Moraes/Reuters

 

After a bitterly divisive campaign scarred by violence and polluted with fake news, Brazil’s presidential election heads to its conclusion on Sunday with final opinion polls indicating a late tightening of the race.

Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro remains the clear frontrunner, maintaining a double-digit lead over his Workers’ Party rival, Fernando Haddad. But his advantage has slipped six points during a week marked by revelations that his campaign has benefited from illegal contributions from business supporters and controversy over a video of his son bragging about how easy it would be to shut down the supreme court.

In its final stretch the Haddad campaign, in a bid to rally neutrals to his side, has increasingly focused on what it says is the grave threat a victory for his opponent, a former army captain who is an avowed admirer of Brazil’s last military dictatorship, would represent to the country’s democracy.

Bolsonaro in turn has sought to portray Haddad as little more than a cut-out of his party’s leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, currently serving a 12-year sentence for corruption. In a recent video to supporters, Bolsonaro said he would “wipe these red bandits from the maps” if elected, deepening concerns about whether as president he would respect constitutional norms.

“This has been the most polarised election since the return of democracy in the 1980s, with a very competitive extreme-right candidate and a left-wing candidate that has generated in certain sectors of society a very strong anti-Workers’ Party sentiment,” says Carlos Pereira, a political scientist with the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

Concerns overblown?

But Pereira believes growing concerns over the fate of Brazilian democracy are overblown and that even if Bolsonaro wins, the country’s institutions are well-placed to curb his authoritarian instincts.

“Brazil’s democratic institutions are very mature, very stable, with great professional capacity to resist illiberal attacks from whatever government,” he argues. “Our democracy is strong, the judiciary independent, the federal prosecution service as well, and the press is free, so Brazil’s institutions are sufficiently strong enough so democracy will not pass through any institutional difficulty.”

Brazilian presidential candidate Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party in Sao Paulo. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra/EPA
Brazilian presidential candidate Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party in Sao Paulo. Photograph: Fernando Bizerra/EPA

But not everyone is convinced of the strength of democracy’s institutional guard rails, especially as Bolsonaro has defied Brazil’s electoral court by ignoring its demand that he stop spreading lies about his opponent.

Environmental activists are concerned about the ability of the state’s other institutions to counter Bolsonaro’s pledge to weaken Brazil’s environmental regulators should he win. They warn this will lead to an increase in deforestation in the Amazon, a process historically accompanied by a spike in violence linked to land disputes.

“Our justice system is very slow and often inconsistent. Brazil is already the most lethal country in the world for environmental activists, and in recent years there has been an increase in attacks on state organs in the countryside,” notes Paulo Barreto of Imazon, an environmental group in the jungle city of Belém.

“We do have institutions like the federal prosecution service to enforce environmental protections enshrined in the constitution, but in the countryside criminals do not wait for court rulings and will act once the government gives a signal of weakening of controls,” he says.

Existential threat

Agrarian activists warn that Bolsonaro’s plans to relax gun-ownership laws while at the same time vowing to criminalise their campaign for land reform represents an existential threat to one of the largest campaigns for social justice in Latin America in recent decades.

“His plan to liberalise gun ownership will allow ranchers to form militias with heavy weaponry to combat the struggle for land reform in Brazil. Our struggle respects the constitution while Bolsonaro is proposing the extermination of minorities in Brazil,” warns John Miller Souza, a co-ordinator with the Workers’ Party-linked Landless Peasant Movement.

Souza’s organisation has been a central element of Bolsonaro’s efforts to link his left-wing opponents with ordinary crime in Brazil, the stratospheric levels of which have left many Brazilians susceptible to his promise of a law-and-order crackdown.

But public security experts warn that rather than tackle the crime epidemic, Bolsonaro’s proposals for the area along with his effort to criminalise his opponents only risk fomenting more violence.

“His discourse on public security is very shallow. His plan for it is by far the most superficial of all the candidates and his proposals such as to arm the population are populist,” says Bruno Paes Manso, a public security expert at the University of São Paulo. “He does not represent the pacification of the country but instead a discourse of violence and conflict. It is a populist discourse that tyrants have typically used in various countries to take advantage of atavistic fears in the population.”

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