It was lunchtime on a Saturday, and a crowd of a dozen people stood outside of São Paulo’s Albert Einstein Hospital. Some wore Brazilian flags as capes. Others sported t-shirts that bore the name and face of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s far-right presidential hopeful — who was at the time due to be discharged from the hospital.
A 20-minute drive away, crossing the city’s festering Pinheiros River, preparations were underway for a large-scale protest with the slogan #EleNão, or “not him.” With the women-organized demonstration, activists were moving to fight Bolsonaro’s presidential ambitions.
Major Olimpio, a former São Paulo military police officer who is now running for Brazil’s Senate with Bolsonaro’s party, stepped out of the hospital beaming. “He’s completed all of the necessary measures and precautions,” he said of Bolsonaro. “Now, he’s preparing to go to the airport, thank God.”
Three weeks earlier, Bolsonaro – the fiery former army captain with a history of homophobic, racist, and misogynistic remarks, including pro-torture statements and support for police killings – had been stabbed at a campaign rally by a mentally disturbed would-be assassin, puncturing his intestines in three places and landing him in the intensive care unit.
The assassination attempt added an extra level of chaos to an already turbulent election. For months, polling figures suggested that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was almost guaranteed a victory this year — until he was jailed in April on corruption charges that he and his supporters call politically motivated.
Much more turmoil is expected to unfold as the election draws near. Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the controversial purge of 3.3 million voters from the rolls, and a judge from a lower court was provisionally removed from his post for planning to confiscate voting machines on the eve of the election. Set amid a backdrop of continuing economic downturn, ongoing corruption scandals, high unemployment, and rising violence, the months since Lula’s arrest have been, according to one seasoned campaign hand, “the craziest election I’ve ever seen.”
Bolsonaro now leads in the polls among the 13 candidates vying for the presidency in the October 7 first-round elections, from which two candidates will emerge, unless someone takes a majority of votes and wins outright. Nipping at Bolsonaro’s heels is Fernando Haddad of Lula’s Workers’ Party, who is seen by colleagues as competent but lacking the imprisoned leader’s charisma and working-class touch. After years of corruption scandals and a barrage of media attacks, a sizable chunk of Brazil’s population vehemently rejects the Workers’ Party and might turn to Bolsonaro as the best shot of crushing out their power.
Violence on the Trail
It’s a messy, polarized race that boils down to a center-left democrat and a far-right authoritarian. Bolsonaro has praised Brazil’s dictatorship-era generals and torturers, as well as the brutal Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet.
Like Presidents Donald Trump in the United States and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro tends to shoot from the hip, lacking the polish and filter of traditional politicians. While the media bashes his rhetorical missteps, his supporters praise his “straight talk.” Like Duterte, Bolsonaro’s outbursts have included repeated promises to grant an already-deadly police force more freedom to kill.
In a country with nearly 64,000 homicides last year — more than any country in the world — and where a large portion of the population agrees that “a good criminal is a dead criminal,” tough-on-crime stances can garner votes. But the approach can have consequences, too: Experts fear an increase in police killings, another Brazilian specialty, on top of the steadily rising statistics of recent years.
True to his words, Bolsonaro — who has said, “You can only combat violence with violence” — performed his signature gun finger salute in the first photo of him released from the hospital. It was an apparent nod to the candidate’s outspoken loathing of Brazil’s restrictive guns laws, which he’s promised to revoke if elected.
False news reports and misinformation, aided by loyal social media soldiers and quite a few bots, have been relentless. After the stabbing, rumors quickly spread that Bolsonaro’s campaign staged the attack to gain sympathy. Others, including elected officials, accused Bolsonaro’s Federal Police escort of being behind the attempted killing.
Claims that are less conspiratorial but nonetheless false have circulated as well: One rumor, spread through WhatsApp, held that Haddad and the Workers’ Party planned to combat homophobia by distributing penis-shaped baby bottles to daycare centers.
Riding the wave of mistrust, Bolsonaro has repeatedly insisted that Brazil’s electronic voting system is susceptible to frauds that are easily carried out, and that his competitors are poised to steal the election from him. His supporters have eagerly embraced the notion.
One of those supporters is Ramiro Alves Da Rocha Cruz, or “Ramiro of the Truck Drivers,” 44, a leader of the important truckers strike in May. He’s now a candidate for Congress from Bolsonaro’s party, and he’s sure that his political boss will either win or get cheated out of winning. “If he doesn’t win in the first round, it’ll be voting machine fraud,” Da Rocha Cruz said. “It’s a ‘Truman Show’!”
Friday night, from his hospital bed, Bolsonaro had given an interview and declared that he would “not accept” any result other than a win. He later said he meant that he “wouldn’t call Fernando Haddad to compliment him.”
Team Bolsonaro’s Stumbles
As Brazilian women planned their protest against him across town, Bolsonaro was finally discharged from the hospital and went straight to the airport. On the plane back to Rio de Janeiro, he was both booed and cheered by raucous passengers aboard the flight.
For supporters, Bolsonaro’s discharge could not have come soon enough; in his absence, some of the candidate’s key allies repeatedly put their feet in their mouths.
One such case was his chief economic adviser, a University of Chicago-educated free marketeer named Paulo Guedes, who acts as something of a liaison between Bolsonaro and powerful business interests. While Bolsonaro was in the hospital, Guedes raised the prospect of reintroducing a financial transactions tax, which is deeply unpopular not only among financial elites, but also with a tax-weary population in general. In another case, Bolsonaro’s vice presidential candidate, the retired Gen. Hamilton Mourão, provoked waves of popular outcry when he spoke pejoratively about single mothers and then questioned the viability of Brazil’s treasured “13th salary,” akin to a government-mandated Christmas bonus.
Also during his hospital stay, a daily newspaper called Folha de São Paulo put out a story, based on diplomatic cables, stating that in 2011, Bolsonaro had threatened to kill one of his two ex-wives; she is now running to be a member of Congress from Rio de Janeiro. She denied the report’s legitimacy, but friends from the time back up the reporting. A journalist with the same name as one of the reporters who landed the scoop was attacked by Bolsonaro supporters online; she reported that her personal details were shared on social media.
Then, on Friday, Veja magazine, which usually supports conservative candidates, put out a damning report detailing his ex-wife’s accusations that Bolsonaro had stolen a bank safe from her, withheld undeclared wealth in public filings, received illicit income of unknown provenance, and acted aggressively toward her.
The media reports brought on a new wave of Trump-like pro-Bolsonaro messaging that questioned the reliability of the Brazilian press. Joice Hasselmann, a disgraced former journalist now running for Congress as a Bolsonaro ally, claimed without any evidence that a Brazilian magazine had mysteriously been paid $152 million to smear the presidential candidate.
The deflection tactics seem to be working: A new poll released Monday night saw Bolsonaro increase his lead by 4 points, to 31 percent, while Haddad, stuck at 21 percent, saw his disapproval rating jump from 27 to 38 percent. Then, Brazil’s powerful agriculture caucus in Congress officially endorsed Bolsonaro. Subsequent polls have confirmed this trend.
The #EleNão, or #NotHim, protests, held across Brazil last weekend, attracted hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in what is considered to be the biggest women-led protest in Brazil’s history. In the runup to the demonstrations, the stakes became clear: One of the organizers of the Rio de Janeiro event was attacked outside her home, and the main Facebook group for organizing was hacked.
In São Paulo, the protest drew a diverse crowd. Attendees included gay couples, transgender people, the rich and poor alike. There were center-left adherents alongside radical Marxist movements; even some centrist candidates for office showed up.
“I’m worried about the kind of people that he’s going to bring out of the closet: people that are racist, homophobic, misogynist, and that now think they are represented,” said Ana Carolina Perreira, 37, a veterinarian, who said her presidential vote would go to center-left candidate Ciro Gomes, now polling around 11 percent.
Bolsonaro “has an extremely homophobic discourse, and I’m worried that some of rights we’ve won would be revoked,” said Daniele Agostine, 33, a photographer who identified as a lesbian, specifically mentioning gay marriage and adoption.
The estranged daughter of far-right philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, best described as Brazil’s Rush Limbaugh and one of Bolsonaro’s leading intellectual inspirations, was also reported present, wearing a bulletproof vest.
The next day, on Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s main thoroughfare, a counterprotest was held with several large sound trucks. Armies of fans wearing Bolsonaro T-shirts posed for selfies, doing the gun-fingers salute in front of a giant blowup of Mourão, who was depicted with a presidential sash.
“This is not Venezuela!” shouted a group holding a banner that read “Bolsonaro for change.” Meanwhile, the unofficial Bolsonaro anthem, “The Legend Has Arrived,” an upbeat rap-reggae-salsa-pop smash by Venezuelan artist El Veneco, blasted from sound systems.
“I’d vote for him because of his security proposals. What’s the point in having a job if you don’t know if you’ll get there alive?” said Antonio Berto, 40, a painter, wearing a white “Bolsonaro President” T-shirt.
“They want to make it possible for 3-year-old children to have sex change operations,” said Maria Meirice De Almeida Prado, 63. “The only candidate who is against this is Jair Bolsonaro.”
“Yes, him!” the counter protesters shouted, a direct response to protests the day before. “Get out PT!” others said. “Our flag will never be red,” they said, in reference to communist movements. A helicopter that pro-Bolsonaro protesters suspected was from the Globo TV network drew the crowd’s ire: Demonstrators swore at it from the ground and decried the chopper as “communist.”
In another very Trumpian twist, Bolsonaro’s third son, Eduardo, entered the fray. One of the top vote-getters among São Paulo’s members of Congress in 2014, Eduardo Bolsonaro is in the middle of a re-election bid. Eduardo Bolsonaro posted on Twitter that 1 million people were attending the march; the statement was later proven to be a gross exaggeration.
When Eduardo Bolsonaro took the microphone on top of one of the sound trucks, the crowd roared.
“Do you believe in the polls?!” he shouted.
“No!” replied the hyped-up crowd.
“With God’s will, we’ll win in the first round!”
Correction: October 5, 2018, 1:53 p.m. EDT
A previous version of this article misstated the river between the Albert Einstein Hospital and the location of the #EleNão protest in São Paulo. It is the Pinheiros River, not the Tietê. It has been updated.