People demonstrate against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 29, 2018.
People demonstrate against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 29, 2018.

RIO DE JANEIRO - Thousands of Brazilians took to the streets Saturday in protest against the presidential front-runner, a far-right congressman whose campaign has exposed and deepened divisions in Latin America's largest country.

At a festive demonstration in downtown Rio de Janeiro, protesters danced, sang and shouted, "Not him!'' The phrase has been the rallying cry of groups who are trying to prevent Jair Bolsonaro from winning in the October elections.

Around 7,000 people also gathered in the capital, Brasilia, to denounce the candidate, according to police estimates. A handful of rallies in support of him were also planned for the weekend.

High negatives

Bolsonaro is currently leading polls with around 28 percent of support among voters polled, but he also has the highest rejection rate of any candidate. That could become especially important if no one wins the majority of votes on Oct. 7 and the election is decided in a second round. Polls then show him losing in most scenarios.

His support is particularly thin among women, who led the protests against him Saturday, although men and children were also in attendance. According to a recent Ibope poll, 36 percent of men surveyed said they would vote for Bolsonaro, while only 18 percent of women supported him, an unusual gap. The difference in support between men and woman for other candidates varies by only a few percentage points.

The poll was conducted Sept. 22-24 and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

A supporter of presidential candidate Jair Bolsona
A supporter of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro reacts during a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 29, 2018.

Brazil is experiencing a moment of intense and unusual polarization after a tumultuous few years. It has suffered a deep recession, a prolonged corruption investigation that ensnared the political class, and the impeachment of its first female president after highly contentious proceedings. 

As a result, this year's elections are among the most unpredictable and heated in years.

The protests came the same day Bolsonaro was released from a hospital, having been stabbed on Sept. 6 during a campaign rally. He underwent surgeries to repair damage to his intestines and to stem severe internal bleeding. It's not yet clear when or if he will get back on the campaign trail.

But his campaign has both benefited from and contributed to the political divide by focusing on culture-war issues and "traditional'' family values.

Offensive remarks

Bolsonaro has long been known for offensive comments about gays, women and black people, and he hasn't tempered his rhetoric during the campaign. He has also kept up his praise of Brazil's two-decade military dictatorship and promised to give police permission to shoot first and ask questions later.

In response, many Brazilians have vowed to support whomever he faces in the second round.

At the same time, his 'tell it like it is' attitude has found traction among voters who are angry at the political establishment.

Despite his decades in Congress, some see the candidate as a no-nonsense outsider who can rid Brazil of corruption and high crime rates.