Brazil’s Elections Approach with Jair Bolsonaro as the Presidential Front-Runner

RECIFE, Brazil — Brazilians are accustomed to upheaval. The country is still struggling to pull itself out of its deepest recession in decades, the latest chapter in the country’s cyclical history of economic boom and bust.

Violence, a staple of modern-day Brazil, is roiling society. The country experienced a record number of murders in 2017, nearly 64,000, according to the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety, a nonpartisan think tank.

In late September, officials at Petrobas, the state-owned oil company, agreed to pay more than $850 million in penalties tied to bribes it paid politicians. The subsequent “Car Wash” investigations into the company have led to convictions of several powerful business and political leaders, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Add in the 2016 impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff over violating budget regulations and it’s unsurprising that public skepticism of the country’s ruling class is growing across the country.

It’s in this turbulent atmosphere that Brazilians head to the polls on Oct. 7 to vote for a president and hundreds of other national, state and local positions. The impact of the elections will stretch far beyond the borders of Brazil, Latin America’s most populous country and largest economy.

The front-runner for president is Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate whose incendiary rhetoric has attacked ethnic minorities, gays and women. One of the founders of a Facebook group with roughly 3 million members, ” Women Against Bolsonaro” was attacked in front of her home. Bolsonaro himself was recently released from a hospital after being stabbed in the stomach at a campaign rally in early September.

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Bolsonaro’s leading position in the polls is stirring concern by analysts over the future of human rights, gun control, the economy, the environment and governance itself. The appeal of his candidacy seems to reflect the stormy age Brazilians are living in.

“What Bolsonaro has that’s attractive is violence,” says Moisés José Ferreira, 53, a taxi driver in the historic city of Olinda in northeastern Brazil. Ferreira says he hasn’t yet decided who to vote for, but he says many people he knows support Bolsonaro. “Everyone is embracing him.”

A Bolsonaro victory will shake the country’s institutions, says Marcus Melo, a political science professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco. Brazil’s democracy “could deteriorate a great deal, but it doesn’t run the risk of becoming Venezuela,” Melo says.

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Brazil’s system of checks and balances are better than what many people in the country believe, says Melo, adding that the judiciary is more robust than other Latin American democracies. Nonetheless, Melo describes the current political climate as a step “backwards 40 years” and laments the decay in the “quality” of Brazil’s democracy he expects will happen should Bolsonaro be elected.

Melo also worries about the potential impact Bolsonaro’s “unprepared” political appointees would have on government agencies and how “bluster and attacks typical of intolerant populists” would degrade public discourse.

Bolsonaro proposes to liberalize public access to firearms, advocating the repeal of a 2003 law that tightened the sale and possession of guns. All firearms in Brazil are required to be registered and only certain groups, such as the police and military, are allowed to carry a gun outside of the home. The minimum age for gun ownership is 25, chosen because studies showed most murders in the country are committed by people 24 and younger, says Bruno Langeani of “Sou da Paz” (I’m for Peace), a think tank focused on public safety.

Fernando Haddad, Bolsonaro’s leading opponent, has a generic proposal regarding weapons, says Langeani, while other candidates have more incisive plans. Ciro Gomes, the next highest polling candidate would focus on integrating databases aimed at tracking weapons and ammunition and combating illegal arms sales. Marina Silva proposes the systematic tracking of arms and ammunition to help solve crimes.

The increase in murders and other violence has hit the country’s poor north and northeast regions especially hard. Nationally, spending for police has increased from $12.3 billion in 2005 to $21 billion last year.

The spending hasn’t done much to help Brazil´s economy crawl out of a deep backward slide.

The country went through a significant recession, says economist Marcel Balassiano. Brazil’s gross domestic product fell almost 4 percent both in 2015 and again in 2016, Balassiano says, while unemployment today hovers at around 12 percent. Reforms to the country’s labor laws have eliminated some worker protections.

Both Bolsonaro and Haddad represent risks for Brazil, says Balassiano, who works for the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a think tank focused on socioeconomic development. “Bolsonaro has more extremist positions. He always says that he doesn’t understand the economy. And he’s had an approach that is more open to state-owned companies.” Yet, Balassiano notes, Bolsonaro’s choice for his primary economic minister is Paulo Guedes, a graduate of the University of Chicago and an economic liberal.

“The risk,” says Balassiano, “is whether this marriage between Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes would last for four years.” Recent discord between Guedes and Bolsonaro over a tax proposal reported by The New York Times already suggests tensions between the two.

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Maria Malta, an economist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, worries that if state-run businesses, such as Eletrobras, the country’s power company, are privatized, the poorest Brazilians may be neglected. The government in 2016 capped public spending on health care and education for 20 years, a move that generated public outrage yet appealed to foreign investors.

The federal government has always been essential for stimulating economic growth and providing essential services, Malta says. “Brazil is under-developed. A large part of the population doesn’t have access to services because they earn very low incomes.” Roughly 171,000 households in Brazil have no electricity, according to the country’s statistics agency. These homes are primarily located in the poor north and northeastern regions as well as in the midwest.

Malta suspects that a profit-driven private firm would be unwilling to shoulder the costs of providing services to small, remote communities. In the Amazon, she explained, electricity in some areas comes from oil-powered plants. “If Eletrobras weren’t in charge, there would be a substantial risk of blackouts in the region because the costs of running this system, such as transporting the oil by boat, are very high.”

Others see the Amazon region itself threatened by a Bolsonaro government.

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“He’s a climate change denier,” says Philip Fearnside, a researcher at the National Institute of Amazon Research in Manaus. Fearnside says Bolsonaro has vowed to take Brazil out of the Paris climate accord and limit environmental regulations. Eliminating the Ministry of the Environment and making it an agency within a new Ministry of Resources would also create a conflict of interest, Fearnside says. “You can’t have the same agency that is trying to inspect and control something and promote whatever the [issue] is. That’s a formula for having problems.”

Polls reflect the nation’s fragmented political landscape; none of the eight presidential candidates have a commanding lead in polls and a runoff between the two top vote-getters is likely later this month.

The Economist has labeled Bolsonaro a “threat to democracy.” But other observers say the anxiety over Bolsonaro may be overblown. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, political scientists Felipe Krause and Andre Borges argue that while Brazil’s political system of allowing candidates from many parties to campaign invites fragmentation, its constraints also suggest a second candidate reaching a runoff likely will be a centrist.

Financial markets appear to prefer Bolsonaro, rising after a poll released showing him increasing his lead. Polls suggest that the most likely scenario in a run-off would pit Bolsonaro against Haddad, the successor to Lula, the former president who is sitting in prison. Yet many in Brazil, find both options distasteful, leaving the outcome uncertain.

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