BRASILIA (Reuters) - He is anti-gay, pro-gun and warns that China is taking over Brazil. And with one year to go before Brazil’s presidential election, right-wing Congressman Jair Bolsonaro is running second in opinion polls.
Bolsonaro, a 62-year-old former paratrooper, lacks a major party behind him but hopes to emulate Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to the U.S. presidency with the support of Brazilians fed up with corrupt politicians and bad government.
“Trump faced the same attacks I am facing - that he was a homophobe, a fascist, a racist, a Nazi - but the people believed in his platform, and I was rooting for him,” Bolsonaro told Reuters in an interview this week in his office in Brasilia, decorated with the portraits of five military presidents from Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship.
A seven-term congressman, Bolsonaro is emerging as the law-and-order and anti-corruption candidate for the October 2018 vote. His support is fed by a surge in violent crime and Brazil’s worst-ever graft scandal, which has implicated much of the political class, including President Michel Temer.
For many disillusioned voters in Latin America’s largest country, Bolsonaro’s appeal lies in his clean record, with not a single allegation of graft raised against him.
Many others in the Catholic country, however, are outraged by misogynist comments and outspoken support for Brazil’s former military dictatorship, including its use of torture.
Bolsonaro is appealing a conviction for inciting violence after he told a female congresswoman on the floor of the lower house that he “would not rape her because she did not deserve it.”
After a high-ranking army officer, General Antonio Mourão, warned this month the military could seize power if Brazil’s courts do not punish corrupt politicians, Bolsonaro played down the remark.
“It was just a warning. Nobody wants to seize power that way,” he said, adding with a smile: “Maybe we could have a military man winning in 2018, but through elections.”
Battling what he sees as a hostile press, Bolsonaro aims to use social media to deliver his message directly to voters, as Trump did successfully in the U.S. election last year. His Facebook page has more followers than any other politician in Brazil - 4.5 million.
A poll by Datafolha in June put him second in voting intentions for the 2018 elections, at 16 percent, trailing only former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, at 30 percent, who has been convicted of corruption and could be barred from running.
However, political watchers say Bolsonaro’s appeal is likely to wane as opponents play on his divisive comments. His rejection rate of 30 percent is only surpassed by Lula’s 46 percent and the Governor of Sao Paulo Geraldo Alckmin’s 34 percent.
Bolsonaro’s homophobic reputation arose from his strident opposition to same-sex unions and attacks on a sexual education program for schools that he said encouraged homosexuality. He has maintained that adoption of children by same-sex couples is tantamount to pedophilia.
As he prepares for a presidential run, Bolsonaro has moderated his rhetoric, telling Reuters that politics had no place in the bedroom and what adults did between the sheets was a private matter.
But he won’t budge on other policies such as easing gun control laws so any Brazilian can purchase a weapon. He said pro-gun bills he has sponsored should win approval in a more conservative Congress elected in 2018.
While pledging to continue current efforts to reduce red tape and the size of the state, Bolsonaro would not privatize companies considered strategic, such as state-run oil company Petrobras - a national development strategy espoused by Brazil’s military governments.
If elected, Bolsonaro’s priority in foreign affairs would be to strengthen ties with Washington, especially with Trump in the White House. He would aim to make the United States Brazil’s main trade partner, a position it lost to China in 2009.
“China is taking over Brazil and that is worrying. They are investing in mining, agriculture, energy, ports and airports,” Bolsonaro said, pledging to restrict Chinese investors from buying Brazilian companies.
At the end of the interview, Bolsonaro stood up and saluted in front of the portraits of the five military presidents. Outside, people lined up to get selfies with him.
“I want a photo. He is the only politician who has not stolen,” said Marcos, 18, a student from Goias state.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Daniel Flynn and James Dalgleish