São Paulo’s Paulista Avenue was once the beating heart of the Brazilian economy. Stretching three kilometres across the city centre, the yawning boulevard was home to the nation’s biggest banks.

Today Paulista is the public face of Brazil’s sharp economic decline. Homeless encampments dominate pavements and robberies are common. The prestige associated with the one-time financial hub has faded away. On one billboard, the message is stark: “A fome voltou”, “Hunger is back”. The words are juxtaposed against an image of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, riding a jet ski, a broad grin spread across his face.

For many Brazilians, Bolsonaro is responsible for the hardship now afflicting Latin America’s largest country. In the three years since the far-right populist became leader in 2019, the economy has grown only about 2 per cent. The Covid-19 pandemic killed 670,000 Brazilians, the second-highest death toll worldwide, and inflation has soared this year to about 12 per cent, hurting the poorest most. A study released this month found more than 33mn Brazilians now suffer from hunger — 14mn more than just two years ago.

In the run-up to elections this October, voters are making their unhappiness clear. Poll after poll shows Bolsonaro trailing his main rival, the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftwing Workers’ party (PT), by as many as 20 percentage points.

With a shrinking window in which to turn his fortunes around, Bolsonaro looks increasingly desperate to appeal to voters beyond his base. Those close to the president predict more cash handouts to the poor and a campaign focused on winning over women voters who dislike his overt machismo. But it also means a rising tide of rhetoric designed to question the validity of the election itself — setting up a potential confrontation after the polls close that echoes the turmoil Donald Trump instigated in the US in 2020.

An opposition street hoarding reads: ‘A fome voltou’, (Hunger is back) in reference to Brazil’s sharp economic decline under Bolsonaro
An opposition street hoarding reads: ‘A fome voltou’ (Hunger is back), in reference to Brazil’s sharp economic decline under President Jair Bolsonaro © Bryan Harris/FT

“Bolsonaro is trying to create a narrative that if he loses the election, then the result will be fake,” says Luiz Felipe D’Ávila, who is running for the presidency with the libertarian Novo party and is polling in single digits.

Few expect this election to be without drama. During the 2018 race Bolsonaro was stabbed while on the campaign trail. Now 67, he continues to suffer lingering effects from the injury. His health, as well as that of his 76-year-old rival, are wild cards.

“People in the government know that if nothing changes, Lula will be elected in October,” says Thomas Traumann, a political analyst and former official in a PT-led government. “They will do whatever they feel is needed to change people’s mood and give new life to Bolsonaro’s campaign.”

The first round of voting is on October 2, but political analysts say Bolsonaro’s campaign wheels are already in motion. The situation has become urgent, says Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation, a business school in Minas Gerais.

“It is the first case of a president running for re-election [who] is not at the forefront of the polls four months before election day . . . His position is unprecedented in Brazilian history.”

‘How can we go back to Lula?’

Set among rolling, vineyard-covered hills, Nova Pádua in Brazil’s far south calls itself a “little Italian paradise”. It is home to almost 3,000 people, mostly descended from Italian immigrants who arrived in Brazil early in the 20th century.

Prosperous and organised, the tiny municipality contrasts sharply with Brazil’s larger urban centres. It is also politically distinct: in the 2018 race, 93 per cent of the town voted for Bolsonaro, the highest percentage of the nation’s 5,500-odd official municipalities.

Despite his weak nationwide approval ratings, Bolsonaro has retained a dedicated base of about 20 per cent of voters, many of whom live in places like Nova Pádua and are still vehemently opposed to Lula’s return.

Former Brazilian president and presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, centre, speaks during a rally in Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of the leftwing Workers’ party is leading Bolsonaro by as many as 20 percentage points, according to some polls © Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

“There is an aversion here to the populism of government handouts, which the left developed. It’s the individuals who make things happen, not the state,” says Danrlei Pilatti, mayor of Nova Pádua, echoing a sentiment common in agricultural communities that Bolsonaro gives them the “freedom” to work.

“Bolsonaro is seen to defend the same values as agricultural producers — God, family and fatherland,” says Celso Fugolin, an agribusiness adviser who works on the booming “Bolsonaro Belt” of states stretching from Rio Grande do Sul in the south up through Mato Grosso in the west.

Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 as a political outsider who promised to stamp out corruption following a years-long graft scandal during the administration of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. The Lava Jato or “car wash” investigation, which began in 2014, implicated scores of politicians and discovered billions in bribes and kickbacks. In Bolsonaro’s southern strongholds, the topic remains a key issue.

“Corruption in the Workers’ party governments is something that everyone knows about,” says Oneide Susin, a small-business owner in Nova Pádua. “How can we go back to Lula? If he returns, we will become like Venezuela.”

Unfortunately for Bolsonaro, the argument resonates less elsewhere in the country. Large states with big cities such as São Paulo and Minas Gerais, which backed Bolsonaro in the 2018 race, now look set to flip. Lula, who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010, also appears to have a firm grip over the country’s poorest states in the Amazon and populous north-east.

According to a BTG survey of four geographical blocs, Bolsonaro is poised to win only the south, which accounts for 15 per cent of the electorate. He also has strong support among wealthier Brazilians — those who earn incomes at least five times the minimum wage, which is about $235 per month.

“Bolsonaro is facing a massive challenge to get re-elected and one explanation is inflation and the economy. People feel it in their pockets, when they go shopping and in terms of their quality of life,” says Maria do Socorro Braga, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos.

The economic malaise is visible. Over the past two years, São Paulo has reported a 30 per cent jump (to almost 32,000) in the number of people living on the street. Entire public plazas are occupied by homeless citizens.

“The topic of the election will be the economy and on this the president has nothing to say,” says Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper, a university in São Paulo. “He will blame it on the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, but these have affected many countries . . . Why does Brazil have the fourth-highest inflation level in the G20? Why is hunger in Brazil increasing so much?”

A special focus

Those close to the president say he sees the economic difficulties and is scrambling to address them. “The challenge is the . . . big impact of inflation, especially fuel, gas and electricity prices. We have a special focus on this,” says Augusto Rosa, a federal lawmaker with Bolsonaro’s Liberal party.

The government this month passed legislation capping state taxes on fuels, electricity and telecoms at 17 per cent. Fernando Bezerra, a senator who spearheaded the bill, says the move could reduce by as much as 22 per cent the price of diesel and gasoline, which is a particular sore spot for voters. Brazil’s truckers, core Bolsonaro constituents, have borne much of the brunt.

The government is looking at giving a monthly cash handout to the truckers.

Homeless people receive lunch at the Se Square in Sao Paulo
Homeless people receive lunch at Sé Square in São Paulo. The city has reported a 30 per cent jump (to almost 32,000) in the number of people living on the streets © Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Bolsonaro has also been leaning heavily on Petrobras, the state-controlled energy group, to drop its policy of pegging diesel and petrol prices to international rates. Over the past 16 months, the Brazilian leader has dismissed three consecutive chief executives after they refused to abandon the policy, which Bolsonaro says keeps prices high for consumers. He has called the company’s profits criminal, saying it threatens to “plunge Brazil into chaos”.

Onyx Lorenzoni, a former labour minister in Bolsonaro’s administration, says the government is “making great efforts to contain the rise in fuel prices by seeking to reduce taxes and questioning the policies of Petrobras”.

He adds that the government last year increased social welfare payments with its Auxílio Brasil programme. Under the scheme, Brazil’s poorest now receive a payment of R$400 ($85) per month, a 75 per cent increase on what was paid out on average during the previous Lula-era Bolsa Família programme. Billboards across Brazil’s poor north-east, home to 40mn voters, tout Bolsonaro’s scheme as “the world’s biggest”.

But if such efforts do not begin to pay dividends, Traumann says the government could go for broke and declare a state of emergency. This would allow Bolsonaro to circumvent fiscal rules in order to increase the Auxílio Brasil handouts, possibly to as much as R$600. “This would leave the electoral courts with the burden of forbidding the poorest from getting more money” as the move would likely breach electoral laws, he says.

“Whether or not it would be enough to change the course of the election is impossible to predict.”

Homeless people in tents on the pavement under an overpass along Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo
Paulista Avenue has become the public face of Brazil’s sharp economic decline, with homeless encampments on pavements and frequent robberies © Andre Penner/AP

The prospect of declaring an emergency has been raised by Ciro Nogueira, the president’s chief of staff, who this month admitted that “the people are suffering”. But such a move would be likely to rile international investors who are permanently on edge about Brazil’s public debt pile and the president’s populist tendencies.

Bolsonaro will claim that “if he does not win, the communists will be in power and they will undermine democracy and bring back a stronger state,” says D’Ávila, the presidential candidate. “He will say Congress and the Supreme Court didn’t let him pass laws, so he now needs the vote of the people in order to have a true rightwing government. That is his discourse.”

Beyond inflation, observers say Bolsonaro’s campaign will focus on demographic groups where he polls weakly, such as with women, but that it is unlikely to stray far from his core populist message.

Divine responsibility

“I have five children. Four are men and then, in a moment of weakness, the fifth came out a girl,” Bolsonaro said in 2017.

Among women voters, the former army captain now trails Lula by more than 25 percentage points, according to Datafolha. Ahead of the 2018 vote, Bolsonaro was the target of the Ele Não (“Not Him”) protest movement, designed to highlight his often misogynistic language and attitude. The movement continues in large urban centres, but has little resonance in the nation’s vast agricultural interior.

A protest against Brazilian right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, called by a social media campaign under the hashtag #EleNao (Not Him), in Brasilia in 2018
Ahead of the 2018 vote, Bolsonaro was the target of the Ele Não (Not Him) protest movement, designed to highlight his often misogynistic language and attitude © Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Still experts say Bolsonaro is now making efforts to address his weakness among women by building support from those in Brazil’s growing evangelical community who share his conservative values, including opposition to abortion and LGBTQ rights.

“The evangelical woman’s vote will be very relevant. They are less ill-disposed towards Bolsonaro,” says Graziella Testa, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation. She points out that Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, an evangelical Christian, is already playing a role.

Last month, the first lady delivered a televised address for Mothers’ Day that doubled as a campaign advertisement for her husband: “Being a mother is the most divine responsibility of all . . . We are committed to caring for our country’s mothers,” she said.

Silas Lima Malafaia, an influential neo-Pentecostal pastor, says Michelle will be a big draw for evangelical voters, even if Bolsonaro himself remains a Catholic: “We know he’s not evangelical, but don’t care about that. We care about who upholds family principles and Bolsonaro has always had the same position,” he says. “For every five votes in the evangelical world, four are for Bolsonaro and one is for Lula.”

Bolsonaro often invokes the almighty. This month he claimed God put him in the presidency, and he regularly says that only God can take him from it. It is this kind of rhetoric, combined with his relentless questioning of Brazil’s electronic voting system and electoral courts, that has generated fears that he will not leave office if he does lose in October.

“Bolsonaro has never respected democracy,” warns Gleisi Hoffmann, the president of the Workers’ party, pointing to the president’s longstanding and vocal support for Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship and his attacks on the nation’s institutions. “Like all authoritarians, he fears the judgment of the polls,” she says.

Technicians work during a test of electronic ballot boxes at the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court in Brasilia
Bolsonaro has questioned Brazil’s electronic voting system and electoral courts, which has generated fears that he will not leave office if he does lose in October © Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

Flávio Bolsonaro, the president’s son and campaign co-ordinator, rang alarm bells last month when he said internal polls showed Bolsonaro winning in the first round and that, if he lost, the campaign’s reaction would not be judicial. Many read a hint of violence in his comments.

The rhetoric appears to be working: according to a Datafolha poll, 34 per cent of the electorate now believe there is “a big chance” this year’s election will be rigged. Given the radical nature of parts of Bolsonaro’s base, there are those who expect to witness an event similar to the 2021 storming of the US Capitol should Bolsonaro lose.

Edson Fachin, head of the electoral court, took the unusual step last month of asking ambassadors in Brasília to be “alert against frivolous accusations” and the “virus of misinformation”. “Democracy is threatened. Electoral justice is under attack,” the supreme court judge had said earlier.

Ciro Gomes, a centre-left presidential candidate who is currently placed third in the polls, says Bolsonaro is acting deliberately to destabilise the political system and “create an excuse for his certain defeat in October”.

“He is trying to divert focus from the issues that the Brazilian people really want resolved, but for which he has shown himself totally incompetent,” he says.

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza

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