Your Guide to Brazil’s Wildly Unpredictable Election

(Bloomberg) -- The country’s most popular politician is in jail. From there, he anointed a candidate who’s soaring in opinion polls. The current front-runner is recovering from a near-fatal stabbing. Brazil’s presidential election is shaping up to be the most polarized since the country’s return to democracy three decades ago. At the root of the political spectacle is a corruption scandal that put many of the country’s business and political leaders behind bars.

1. Who’s running?

A huge field of 13 presidential candidates, five of whom could plausibly win enough votes in first round-voting, on Oct. 7, to move on to a head-to-head runoff on Oct. 28, if needed. One person not running is former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The leftist icon had his bid rejected after he was imprisoned in a corruption scandal, throwing the entire race into disarray. (Brazilians will also elect 27 state governors and more than 1,600 state and federal lawmakers.)

2. Who’s likely to continue to a runoff?

The front-runner is far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain who served as federal lawmaker for seven consecutive mandates. He is rejected by almost half of the voters who worry about his democratic credentials and are offended by his remarks about women and minorities. Leftist Fernando Haddad has quickly risen in the polls after taking the baton from Lula and now looks set to face Bolsonaro in a runoff. Yet many refuse to back any candidate from Lula’s Workers’ Party, which became mired in corruption after holding power for 13 years. Three others with hopes of earning enough votes to advance are Ciro Gomes, a leftist former governor of Ceara state; Geraldo Alckmin, a market-friendly former governor of Sao Paulo; and former Environment Minister Marina Silva.

3. What explains Bolsonaro’s rise?

His tough, often simplistic law-and-order talk resonates in a country increasingly worried about rising crime rates. He proposes arming law-abiding citizens and punishing criminals more harshly, in some cases with the death penalty. He denies Brazil’s military rule from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s was a dictatorship. He once said he favors torture. Though he had an unremarkable legislative record during almost three decades in the lower house of Congress, he’s helped by the fact that he hasn’t been ensnared by Operation Carwash, the investigation into kickbacks and corruption involving state-run oil company Petrobras and the building companies that were among the nation’s biggest political donors.

4. Who constitutes his political base?

With the motto “Brazil above everything, God above all,” he promotes a mix of traditional family values and nationalism that appeals to conservative portions of the electorate, including the rapidly growing evangelical population. He has also come to embody rejection of Lula and his Workers’ Party. Financial markets gave him a pass after he put a University of Chicago-trained economist in charge of his economic plan.

5. Why is the presidential election so polarized this time?

Brazil is still reeling from the 2016 impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s successor. Complete with street demonstrations and coup accusations, the traumatic process pitted Brazilians against one another and left a cloud over the government of her successor, Michel Temer. The economic liftoff that might have served to ease tensions has been disappointing. Corruption accusations also rattled Temer’s administration, leaving many voters second-guessing whether Rousseff’s impeachment was worth it. With working-class hero Lula serving a 12-year sentence, and the political center fragmented, Brazilian society is particularly divided.

6. What’s driving voters?

Distrust in traditional politicians has reached new heights due to the Carwash scandal, but that doesn’t mean voters believe an outsider can lead the country out of its troubles. Amid a fragile economic recovery and double-digit unemployment, Brazilians seek an experienced and competent future president, according to polls. Haddad was mayor of Brazil’s biggest city; Bolsonaro has long experience as congressman. Many Haddad supporters see voting as their way to rebuke perceived political persecution of Lula. Anti-Workers’ Party sentiment is also strong, with many seeking to vanquish Lula once and for all. And over all this hangs the shadow of street crime and the growing power of drug-trafficking groups. The number of violent deaths last year reached a record of 63,880, the most of any country in the world, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, is occupied by the Army.

7. What will be the next president’s main challenge?

Whoever wins will preside over a bitterly divided nation and will need to build bridges and consensus to approve any meaningful legislation. Chief on the list of reforms needed is an overhaul of the pension system that consumes an ever-greater portion of government resources. That’s crucial for Brazil to dig itself out of its fiscal hole. The next president will also need to find other ways to cut spending, increase revenue, or both.

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