Jair Bolsonaro’s opponents look to momentous election to bring an end to far-right president’s ‘Brazilian catastrophe’
Tom Phillips in São Paulo and Constance Malleret in Rio de Janeiro
In his blistering political journals, the celebrated novelist Ricardo Lísias has excoriated the “Brazilian catastrophe” that has unfolded under its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. At nine minutes past eight on Sunday morning, the 47-year-old writer got his chance to help remove that catastrophe from power.
“He is a filthy, abhorrent person … He disgusts me,” Lísias said as he prepared to cast his vote for Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, at a university near his home in São Paulo.
“Bolsonaro is an unsurpassable historic mistake and he must be stopped,” Lísias said as the sun beat down on the tree-lined streets of Brazil’s largest city.
Lísias was far from the only person harbouring such feelings as 156 million Brazilians took part in a momentous election that will have profound implications for the future of one of the world’s biggest democracies, the Amazon rainforest and the climate emergency.
“I’ve never voted for Lula before. I never agreed with his ideas. But Bolsonaro is someone with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, not even as a human being,” said Marcelo Pessuto, a 37-year-old actuary who had also come to vote for Lula.
Pessuto called himself a centrist and said economically his ideas were closer to those of the pro-business Bolsonaro. However, the president’s homophobic, hate-filled rhetoric had convinced him that Bolsonaro had to go. “I don’t want to live in this kind of country … Sometimes we even think about leaving,” he said.
Gabriele Tissot Zappalá, a 23-year-old nursing technician, said Bolsonaro’s negligent and denialist handling of the Covid pandemic, which has killed nearly 700,000 Brazilians, had persuaded her to back Lula, the leftist Worker’s party (PT) candidate, who governed from 2003-11.
“I’ve never been a PT member, but I have chosen my side because I’m against Bolsonaro,” said Zappalá, who came to vote in a red T-shirt bearing the slogan “Anti-fascist Social Club”.
“Anyone is better than Bolsonaro,” agreed her father, Attilio, who had also voted for the 77-year-old former union leader.
Election eve polls suggested Lula has an advantage of between four and eight percentage points over his rival and is likely, but not certain, to prevail when the results are announced on Sunday evening.
Paulo Celso Pereira, an executive editor at the newspaper O Globo, predicted that Lula would clinch a narrow victory as a result of Bolsonaro’s high rejection rates, with about half of all voters spurning the far-right incumbent.
“The country is completely divided – almost straight down the middle. Half is against Bolsonaro and almost half is against Lula,” he said. “And I think it’s this ‘almost’ that will make the difference and that Lula will win.”
As he waited to vote, however, Lísias voiced unease over what might happen if “the worst president in Brazilian history” won a second four-year term. “I hope things work out and there’s change, but I feel a little apprehensive too. I’m not 100% certain what will happen,” he said.
Re-electing the pro-gun radical “would formalise this terror – this wild west-style life”. “Brazil would be sending a message: this is what we are and this is what we want,” said the author, whose Bolsonaro-era political journals refer to the president simply as “Death”.
Lísias had felt firsthand the impact of Bolsonaro’s internationally condemned coronavirus response, which saw him sabotage containment measures and promote quack cures such as hydroxychloroquine, with devastating consequences.
“I spent 20 days in hospital – 15 of them in ICU,” said the writer, whose latest book, A Perfect Pain, is a chronicle of his fight for survival.
He expressed perplexity that more than 51 million fellow citizens had backed Bolsonaro in the election’s recent first round, which Lula won by 6 million votes. “It’s terrifying. It’s astonishing … It’s a kind of blindness,” he said.
Many Brazilians disagree. As conservative voters turned out to back the incumbent in Barra da Tijuca, a pro-Bolsonaro stronghold in west Rio de Janeiro, they voiced enduring support and affection for the man supporters hail as the “mito” (legend).
“Bolsonaro is honest. He’s hard-working; he’s a man with values; he’s a man that I trust,” said Iolanda Dias, a 63-year-old psychologist.
Santiago Santos, a 37-year-old driver, had voted for Lula 20 years ago when he made history after being elected Brazil’s first working-class leader. But the rampant corruption that tarnished the PT’s 14 years in power – and saw Lula jailed for nearly two years, before his conviction was quashed – meant he would never again support the leftist.Brazilians go to polls with Lula slight favourite to oust far-right Bolsonaro
“Lula’s been convicted. He’s an ex-con. Full stop,” Santos said as he prepared to vote for Bolsonaro on the east side of São Paulo. “These are facts.”
Santos denied Bolsonaro bore responsibility for hundreds of thousands of unnecessary Covid deaths, as Lula has claimed. “I lost my mum during the pandemic … and I don’t blame him,” he said.
Lísias begged to differ, comparing Bolsonaro’s “genocidal” handling of the pandemic to the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević’s slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. “In my opinion, he needs to be taken to the international criminal court.”
As voters streamed into the polling station, Lísias said South America’s most populous democracy faced a stark choice: embracing fascism or kickstarting a long and arduous process of reconstruction.
“We have seen so much suffering,” he said solemnly. “So much death.”