SAO PAULO (Reuters) - In 1993, Congressman Jair Bolsonaro strode to a podium in Brazil’s lower house and delivered a speech that shook its young democracy: He declared his love for the country’s not-so-distant military regime and demanded the legislature be disbanded.
“Yes, I’m in favor of a dictatorship!” Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, thundered at fellow lawmakers, some of whom had joined guerrilla groups to battle the junta that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. “We will never resolve grave national problems with this irresponsible democracy!”
On Sunday, Brazilians will cast ballots in a presidential election that could elevate Bolsonaro to the head of the world’s fifth most populous country. A political gadfly who has flitted through nine minor parties in a 27-year career, his views have changed little since that day in the capital of Brasilia.
But his jeremiad message – that Brazil is a dysfunctional basket case that needs an iron-fisted ruler to restore order – is resonating with Brazilians dispirited by the nation’s soaring crime, moribund economy and entrenched political corruption.
Violent criminals? Bolsonaro says shoot them all. Political enemies? Them too. Corruption? A military coup will drain the swamp if the judicial system won’t, he says. The economy? Bolsonaro wants to privatize state-run companies to keep politicians away from the till.
The 63-year-old is surging. He leads a crowded field of 13 candidates heading into the first round of elections on Oct. 7 with 35 percent of likely votes, according to the latest survey by polling firm Datafolha. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will go head-to-head on Oct. 28. Pollsters give Bolsonaro a roughly 30-percent chance of winning the race outright this weekend; some say privately his chances might be even better than that.
If there is a second round, Bolsonaro’s opponent is likely to be Fernando Haddad of the leftist Workers Party. Datafolha shows them tied in a potential runoff.
Many Brazilians are sounding alarms about Bolsonaro’s autocratic views and those of his vice-presidential running mate, recently retired Army general Hamilton Mourao, who says Brazil’s Constitution can be torn up and rewritten without input from citizens.
Then there are the federal hate speech charges leveled against Bolsonaro for his racist, homophobic and misogynist rants. His highlight reel includes a spat with a congresswoman whom Bolsonaro said was not attractive enough for him to rape.
Bolsonaro’s campaign did not respond to Reuters’ requests for an interview.
But supporters insist that tens of millions of Brazilians are silently rooting for Bolsonaro, even if some will not admit it to friends or pollsters.
Brazilians from all walks of life applaud his vow to make life miserable for armed gangs that have made them prisoners in their own homes. Many welcome his promise to loosen gun laws so average citizens can protect themselves. Business people like his recent embrace of free-market economics.
Young people are enthralled by his caustic put-downs of rivals on social media. Polls show Bolsonaro is performing well with female voters, despite being labeled a misogynist by many.
Evangelical Christians, who comprise a quarter of the electorate, are particularly enamored of Bolsonaro, a Catholic who has promised to rid schools of sex education, derail gay rights and thwart any attempts to loosen strict abortion laws. Some see his recent survival of a near-fatal knife attack on the campaign trail as a sign that Bolsonaro, whose middle name Messias means “Messiah,” was sent by God to lead them.
Others view him as the only option to prevent the return to power of the Workers Party, or PT, whose founder, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, is serving a 12-year prison sentence for graft and money laundering.
Teenager Gilson Barbosa Silva, who hails from a tough district of Sao Paulo, says his disgust with the PT is such that he will begrudgingly vote for Bolsonaro, a member of the Social Liberal Party.
“The options are depressing … (but) he is the only fresh option,” the heavily tattooed 18-year-old said.
Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a leading Sao Paulo business school, said Bolsonaro has deftly capitalized on polarization that has deepened with Lula’s downfall.
“The roots of his support are in the political radicalization that has flourished in Brazil,” Melo said. “Jair Bolsonaro is a symbol of this transition.”
Some pundits call Bolsonaro a “Tropical Trump” because of his large social media following, pugnacious demeanor and multiple wives. Steve Bannon, the U.S. president’s campaign guru, has likewise advised Bolsonaro.
But longtime political observers of Brazil – where full democracy has been the exception to a succession of authoritarian regimes in the last century – say Bolsonaro is a unique creation raised in the long shadow of the country’s most recent dictatorship.
Bolsonaro celebrated his ninth birthday just days before the 1964 coup. The son of an untrained dentist, he opted for the military and in 1977 graduated from the Black Needles Military Academy, Brazil’s equivalent of West Point.
His Army career was undistinguished. Bolsonaro landed in the brig for a couple of weeks in 1986 after a Brazilian news magazine published his complaints about paltry military pay. But his words tapped into widespread discontent among rank-and-file soldiers. He parlayed that support into a seat on Rio de Janeiro’s city council in 1988, then a spot in Congress two years later.
Bolsonaro’s legislative achievements are thin: He has authored just two bills that became law. Still, he has never been tarnished by corruption.
Now, after nearly three decades in politics, Bolsonaro is riding a tsunami of voter frustration that may carry him to the presidency.
Brazil is still hobbling from its worst recession in decades; 13 million are unemployed. Crime has exploded and drug violence has touched every corner of the country. Last year saw nearly 64,000 murders, the most on record. The epic bribery investigation that jailed Lula exposed a pay-to-play political culture of staggering proportions.
Disgust with Brazil’s leaders is palpable. Only 13 percent of Brazilians are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with democracy overall, according to the most recent annual poll by Latinobarometro, a Chilean think tank.
That toxic environment has Bolsonaro’s backers, much like U.S. voters who sent Donald Trump to the White House, hoping he will be a walking grenade that explodes the system from within.
“If he can lessen graft and get rid of the old, corrupt foxes who rule our political system, then four years from now we will have more candidates who put Brazil’s interests above their own,” said Raphael Enohata, a 26-year-old graduate engineering student at the University of Sao Paulo. “He is just the beginning of the transition we want.”
Drug gangs are also high on Bolsonaro’s hit list.
“We cannot treat criminals like normal human beings who need to be respected,” Bolsonaro said in August. He said law enforcement should pump suspects with “10, 15 or 30” bullets each, then “be given awards” for their efforts.
A few days later at a rally, Bolsonaro grabbed a cameraman’s tripod and mimicked shooting a rifle. “We are going to gun down all these Workers Party supporters!” he shouted as the crowd cheered wildly.
His campaign said it was a joke. But Bolsonaro is serious about what he sees as his destiny.
“God called me to this race,” he said upon accepting his party’s nomination. “My mother gave me the middle name Messiah. But I alone will not be the savior of the Brazil. Who will save it is all of us, together.”
Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Marla Dickerson