Your Guide to Brazil’s Wildly Unpredictable Election

(Bloomberg) -- One candidate is a far-right former Army captain who waxes nostalgic for the country’s past days of military rule. The other was anointed by a leftist icon who’s in jail. Brazil’s presidential election is the most polarized since democracy was reestablished three decades ago. At the root of the political spectacle is a corruption scandal that put many business and political leaders behind bars.

1. What’s next?

In the head-to-head runoff election on Oct. 28, the front-runner is Jair Bolsonaro, the former Army captain who has served as federal lawmaker for seven consecutive mandates and who came close to an outright victory in first-round voting on Oct. 7. He is rejected by many Brazilians concerned about his commitment to democracy and offended by his past remarks about women and minorities. He is facing leftist Fernando Haddad, who took the baton from former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Many would-be voters refuse to back any candidate from Lula’s Workers’ Party, which became mired in corruption after holding power for 13 years.

2. What happened to moderate candidates?

The race started with a huge field of 13 presidential candidates, many of whom adopted moderate rhetoric in their unsuccessful attempts to advance beyond the first-round vote. Part of the explanation is that Brazilians saw the election as a popular referendum on Lula, who was barred from running after being imprisoned for corruption. Most voters ended up splitting between the candidate Lula supported (Haddad) and the one who fiercely opposed him (Bolsonaro).

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. Candidates associated with Bolsonaro won big in Congress, and his party became the second-largest in the lower house.

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.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg’s Brazil election tracker.
  • Key facts about the leading presidential candidates.
  • The main economic proposals from Brazil’s top presidential contenders.
  • The candidates need to stop the violence, writes Bloomberg Opinion columnist Mac Margolis.
  • Brazilian voters’ education level, according to electoral authorities.

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