WASHINGTON - Voters in Brazil went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president. Observers say the country may be set to elect a far-right candidate. His opponents say his victory would threaten one of the world's largest democracies.
Brazilian Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, the leading presidential candidate heading into Sunday's election, has been called "Tropical Trump" for his combative demeanor, divisive views and anti-establishment stance.
A former army captain, Bolsonaro has also been criticized for his praise of Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and for offensive comments about gays, blacks and women.
Recent polls show Bolsonaro and his once-tiny Social Liberal Party with voter support of 57 percent, and Fernando Haddad, the head of the left wing Workers' Party (PT), which governed Brazil from 2003 until early 2016, with 43 percent.
Sunday's election is the second and final round of voting in the Brazilian presidential selection process. In the first round of voting on Oct. 7, which narrowed the field of candidates to the top two, Bolsonaro led the field with 46 percent of the votes.
Public anger in Brazil has grown, as Latin America’s largest economy has been stuck in recession since 2014, as the political establishment has been rocked by a high-level corruption scandal, and as crime and murder rates have spiked.
Haddad, a former Sao Paulo mayor and onetime education minister, took over the PT candidacy after party founder and former President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva was sent to prison on charges of graft and bribery related to the state-owned oil firm Petrobras, which was uncovered by a criminal investigation known as Operation Car Wash.
Bolsonaro’s message is that Brazil has become a dysfunctional state and that strong leadership from outside the established political system is needed to restore order.
During the campaign, he drew protests after claiming a former dictatorship’s main mistake was not killing more people and that, if elected, he would shut down Brazil’s National Congress.
Many of Bolsonaro’s right-wing supporters have called for a return of military rule to end the growing violence and corruption. Such an idea, however, remains highly controversial and is opposed by many Brazilian military leaders.
“In terms of the military coming back, I think this is a very remote possibility, if it is a possibility. I think that constitutional Brazil, although imperfect (and) in need of improvement (and) adjustment, will likely prove resilient,” said political analyst Paulo Sotero, the director of the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Brazil’s government was a military dictatorship from 1964 until the establishment of democracy in 1985. During that period, the military was accused of torturing and executing opponents, and stifling dissent in the name of preventing the spread of communism.
Bolsonaro has been denounced for his offensive comments, such as saying to a female member of Congress that she was not pretty enough to be raped.
In September, he was stabbed at a campaign event by an assailant police described as mentally disturbed. He suffered intestinal damage and underwent surgery from the attack. His poll numbers rose following the attack.
Many business people support Bolsonaro’s free market economic positions, which would stimulate growth by privatizing state-owned enterprises, reducing regulations and making it easier for foreign investors to enter the Brazilian market.
“He will be judged by his capacity to make the Brazilian economy grow again, sustainably, and create jobs,” analyst Sotero said.
Christian evangelicals also support Bolsonaro’s promise to end sex education in the schools, keep abortion illegal, and end same-sex marriage.
Many who voted for Bolsonaro in the first round said they are voting more against the Workers’ Party, which has been embroiled in corruption charges and has been held responsible for mismanagement of the economy. In 2016, Dilma Rousseff, who was handpicked by Lula to follow him as president, was impeached for budgetary violations.
Haddad is still hoping to pull out an election upset but has been unable to close the gap in public opinion polls. However, his Workers Party will likely remain a force in Congress after a solid showing in Brazil’s poor northeast region that benefited from past social policies under Lula.