SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil’s leftist presidential hopeful Fernando Haddad will have to pull off an extreme feat of political acrobatics if he wants to reverse a first-round beating at the hands of a far-right rival on Sunday.
To have a chance of winning the Oct. 28 runoff against Jair Bolsonaro, Haddad would need to move quickly to the center, distance himself from his political mentor, and denounce the corruption that flourished during his party’s 2003-2016 hold on the presidency, political analysts said.
A 55-year-old former mayor of Sao Paulo, Haddad became the Workers Party (PT) candidate just one month ago, after former president and PT founder Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was barred from running because of a corruption conviction.
Lula, a former union leader and longtime darling of the left, is serving 12 years in prison and faces five more trials.
Lula led the presidential race until he was barred from running and picked Haddad as his replacement. Lula remains a hero for many poorer Brazilian for his efforts to reduce poverty during his two terms in office from 2003 to 2010.
But he is also a divisive figure, with Brazil’s right blaming him for orchestrating political corruption schemes, which Lula has repeatedly denied doing.
In campaigning so far, the PT’s slogan has been “Haddad is Lula. Lula is Haddad.” That message was necessary to maintain support from the party’s left-wing factions, which have not fully embraced Haddad’s centrist politics and academic background.
But that pitch will not be enough to beat Bolsonaro, who holds a commanding lead. The former Army captain and veteran lawmaker took 46 percent of votes in Sunday’s first-round election, compared to Haddad’s 29 percent.
“Haddad has to pivot or perish,” said Sergio Praça, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a leading university. “He also must drop the talk that Lula is a political prisoner. He is not going to win with that line.”
Bolsonaro’s popularity has surged on promises to end a jump in violence with a police crackdown and to squeeze corruption out of politics. He has stirred fears among others though for his praise for Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship, raising fears he would militarize government in Latin America’s largest nation.
Bolsonaro has also been charged with hate speech over his tirades against gays, black Brazilians and women. He has dismissed the federal charges as a political attack.
With their show of support on Sunday, Bolsonaro’s voters declared that, like the Americans who back U.S. President Donald Trump, they do not mind his incendiary rhetoric. In fact, that is much of his appeal.
They want him to bludgeon the political establishment, destroying a system that has refused to reform itself.
In a Sunday night speech, Haddad talked of unifying the country around democratic principles.
He thanked Lula for his support and visited him in prison on Monday. He denounced Bolsonaro as representing a return to Brazil’s dark authoritarian days.
But not once did he utter the word “corruption.”
“Haddad has to tell the Brazilian people that the PT made serious errors, which he did not do in first-round campaigning,” said Carlos Melo, a political scientist with Insper, a Sao Paulo business school. “He has no momentum and he will have to work tirelessly to explain why people should vote for him and put the PT back in power.”
Melo and Praça both joined a chorus of voices calling Bolsonaro a clear danger to Brazil’s democracy, which emerged from a military dictatorship three decades ago.
In moments of social, economic and political unrest, Brazilians have often looked for leadership from the military or a strongman backed by soldiers.
Sunday’s voting showed Bolsonaro, with his talk of an iron-fist on crime and corruption, fulfills that role well.
The election also saw a host of experienced politicians losing congressional and governors races, as Brazilians flayed the establishment after years of investigations that revealed stunning levels of graft.
Many Bolsonaro voters hold their noses when it comes to his inflammatory rhetoric on social issues. They focus instead on his frank talk about rot in the political system and his argument that stopping crime requires killing more criminals.
But to win over more centrists and scoop up more votes on Oct. 28, Bolsonaro will also have to moderate his tone and better explain his policies, a task he has often left to advisors.
“Bolsonaro is an enormous question mark. That alone is appealing to many — it’s refreshing. But he will have to say repeatedly that he supports democracy,” Melo said.
“He has promised a total break with how politics has always been done. To do that, he has to show voters he will work with those who opposed him and that, if elected, he will govern for everyone.”
Reporting and writing by Brad Brooks, Editing by Daniel Flynn, Brad Haynes and Frances Kerry