Bolsonaro’s struggling re-election campaign is running out of time

Far-right leader is still trailing his main rival, the former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Jair Bolsonaro is a president rapidly running out of time as Brazilians head to the polls on October 2nd.

His campaign strategists had promised that his hijacking of the ceremonies on September 7th to celebrate 200 years of Brazilian independence would mark the moment his re-election campaign would finally take off and start to close a double digit gap with his main rival, former left-wing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

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He did manage to fill the country’s largest cities with supporters as the national holiday was transformed into a series of campaign events. But if the far-right leader’s base responded to the call of the man they call “The Myth”, many ordinary Brazilians were repelled by footage of him leading them in a chant of “Imbrochável!” Portuguese slang for never limp — the latest presidential reference to his sexual performance. Polls in the days following the monster rallies provided no bump in support, with Bolsonaro still in the mid-30s, at least 10 points behind Lula.

It was another blow for his team after a much trailed polling surge it predicted would follow a constitutionally dubious populist spending spree that failed to materialise. After the disappointment of September 7th, Mr Bolsonaro went to London for the queen’s funeral, his team briefing that it provided the opportunity to play the international statesman. But the trip succeeded in generating more negative headlines after a video emerged of an English passerby asking a noisy group of his supporters following him around “to show some f**king respect” on the day of the royal funeral. The day before Mr Bolsonaro had given a campaign speech from the balcony of the Brazilian ambassador’s residence in Mayfair, an event widely seen at home as a breach of protocol.

Mr Bolsonaro was back in Brazil for the latest opinion polls, which show Lula now up to 47 per cent, inching towards the 50 per cent plus one vote he needs on October 2nd to win the race in the first round. Mr Bolsonaro is marooned 14 points back on 33 per cent. The underlying data lays bare what could be an insurmountable issue for his campaign — more than 50 per cent of Brazilians say they will not vote for him under any circumstances, a politically lethal level of rejection in a system that requires a candidate to take more than half the total poll to be declared the winner.

To compound the problem Mr Bolsonaro has been unwilling or unable to moderate his approach and reach out beyond his radicalised far-right base to centrist voters. Instead, he has sought to replay the polarising rhetoric of four years ago when Brazilians, fed up with the corruption of the traditional political class, opted for the obscure former army captain despite his track record of misogyny, homophobia and racism.

But in this election corruption is of less importance in a country mired in a now decade-long depression, where it is calculated that 33 million inhabitants are going hungry. Even when he raises it, the president’s corruption message lacks credibility.

There has been a constant stream of scandals involving his administration and his family, whose property empire — much of it bought in cash — is a hot topic on social media. Meanwhile, the business community is more reticent in its support after the promised liberal shock to one of the world’s most closed big economies degenerated into another pay-day for special interests who keep a significant portion of the national budget in a headlock.

With his campaign in trouble and time running out for a course correction by a candidate that appears unwilling to make one, much attention has focused on the possibility that Mr Bolsonaro might refuse to accept defeat. He has laid the groundwork to contest the results by spending much of his near four years in office calling into question Brazil’s highly regarded electronic voting system and the integrity of the judges that oversee it, without providing evidence for his claims that the process is vulnerable to fraud.

He has also managed to insinuate the armed forces into the vote-counting process, leading to fears the military could provide him with the grounds to contest an eventual defeat validated by the electoral court. But while members of the armed forces have not enjoyed such prestige and access to power since the return of civilian rule in 1985, most military observers remain convinced the high command will respect its constitutional role, if for no other reason than it can see the widespread dissatisfaction with the incompetence and corruption of the Bolsonaro administration. Meanwhile the US, which backed the military in 1964 when it last staged a coup, has clearly messaged that it is against any sort of repeat.

But even if the military does not act, fears remain about how Mr Bolsonaro’s most fanatical supporters would respond to defeat. Many are now heavily armed after he watered down gun ownership laws and called on Brazilians to arm themselves in the defence of “liberty”. In one rare, halfhearted attempt to try a more moderate approach Mr Bolsonaro did envisage handing over the presidential sash should he lose. But he later said his defeat would be “anormal” and has never acknowledged the possibility that Lula could succeed him. The threat of violence hangs over the election. Two supporters of Lula have been murdered by followers of the president and a recent poll found that 67 per cent of Brazilians said there were personally afraid of politically inspired violence.

This latent threat hanging over the campaign could end up benefiting Lula. As the vote looms there have been growing calls across the political spectrum to hand the former union leader a clear outright victory in the first round as the best means of seeing off any attempt to subvert the outcome. This could generate the momentum that is crucial if he is to win the few extra points polls show he needs to land an opening round knock-out. Ciro Gomes and Simone Tebet, the third and fourth placed candidates respectively, have about 12 per cent support between them. Among this bloc of voters Bolsonaro’s rejection rating is at 70 per cent and one poll has 33 per cent of Gomes voters and 24 per cent of Tebet’s saying they might switch candidates “for Lula to win on the first round”.

This would cap a remarkable comeback for the leader who left office in 2011 after eight increasingly triumphant years in power only to spend the election four years ago in jail after his conviction on a corruption charge that was subsequently squashed. But fall short and Brazil will face another four weeks of campaigning before a second round on October 30th. No opinion polls show Mr Bolsonaro winning that, either. But a ticket to the run-off buys him another four weeks of time, a vanishingly rare commodity for a struggling campaign.