Brazil's Bolsonaro taps wife to woo Evangelicals, women

·3-min read

Once a discreetly smiling presence at Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's side, First Lady Michelle Bolsonaro is increasingly wooing Evangelical Christian and women voters to reelect the husband she calls "one of God's chosen ones."

Trailing in the polls to his leftist rival Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the far-right incumbent has turned to his telegenic, fervently Christian wife to help him with those two key demographic groups ahead of October 2 elections.

A mainly behind-the-scenes presence for most of Bolsonaro's term, the first lady is now playing a starring role in his campaign -- to the point of giving what he himself called the keynote speech when he launched his reelection bid a month ago.

"She's the most important person here," Bolsonaro, 67, gushed that day.

He then handed the mic over to his beaming 40-year-old wife, who warned ominously against returning "our enemies" to power and led the crowd in the Lord's prayer.

Bolsonaro has long struggled with women voters.

In his 2018 campaign, the former army captain was the target of a women-led movement called #EleNao -- "not him" -- launched by critics who accuse him of misogyny.

He has revived those accusations this time around with controversial campaign-trail behavior such as bragging about his supposed sexual prowess and lashing out at a woman journalist who asked him a tough question during the first presidential debate.

"You must have a crush on me or something," he told her sarcastically.

Enter the first lady.

"Her role is to make (Bolsonaro) more attractive to women voters," says Sergio Praca, a political analyst at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

- Winning strategy? -

Both Bolsonaro and former president Lula are keenly courting women (53 percent of the electorate) and Evangelicals (an estimated 31 percent of Brazil's 213 million people).

Known for his aggressive style and use of profanities, Bolsonaro has sometimes rubbed both groups the wrong way.

Political analysts say women voters also resent his lack of policies to help them through the country's post-Covid-19 economic malaise, whose impact has fallen disproportionately on their shoulders.

Michelle, Bolsonaro's third wife, sends the message the president is a "conservative family man" and "trustworthy" candidate, says Carolina Botelho, a political communication specialist at Rio de Janeiro State University.

The elegant first lady's increasingly active role has turned heads -- including among the electoral authorities, who recently blocked a Bolsonaro campaign ad from television, ruling she had exceeded the time allotted to candidates' allies.

But it is unclear the strategy is paying off: Bolsonaro's poll numbers among women have remained essentially flat, with a double-digit lead for Lula.

Michelle "may have reinforced (Bolsonaro's) standing among women who were already with him, but she hasn't drawn in those who were against him," says Botelho.

"She speaks well to a fanatic, radicalized audience, but not to the rest of the population."

- Religion and politics -

The first lady appears to have greater pull with conservative Christians, given her history of volunteering on church-affiliated charity projects and her close ties with powerful Evangelical pastors and politicians.

"Her main strength is among the Evangelical electorate," says Adriano Laureno, a political analyst at consulting firm Prospectiva.

Her speaking style "closely resembles a pastor's," with constant references to God and a struggle between good and evil, he adds.

In this case, the strategy appears to be working: Bolsonaro holds a double-digit lead over Lula among Evangelicals.

Polls also show a majority of voters in Brazil believe religion should play a role in politics.

The first lady does just that in her public appearances, regularly repeating her husband's slogan: "Brazil above all, and God above everyone."