Once considered too extreme, Brazilian right-winger homes in on presidency

Pascale TROUILLAUD
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Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL), accompanied by his son Flavio (R), senate candidate for the state of Rio de Janeiro, visits the Mercadao de Madureira, in Rio de Janeiroon August 27, 2018. Bolsonaro is polling in second place for the October 7 first round of voting, after imprisoned frontrunner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and followed by center-right former Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin and environmentalist Marina Silva

When Jair Bolsonaro addressed a crowd in a poor, violent area of Rio de Janeiro this week, the man long considered too extreme for the nation's presidency was greeted with shouts of "the myth, the myth!"

In elections starting on October 7, the far-right ex-army captain and long obscure congressman could almost turn the fantasy of his campaign into something near reality.

Loathed by much of Brazil for his insults against women and gays, his alleged racism and crude exhortations for "bandits" to be shot down, Bolsonaro has surprised many by becoming a frontrunner.

The only politician currently more popular is the leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leader who also divides Brazilians -- only in the other direction.

Lula would easily win the election, according to polls, but he is in prison for corruption and very unlikely to be allowed on the ballot.

That would leave Bolsonaro winning the first round and going into a runoff, something once unthinkable.

His rise has been steadily building and without Lula, Bolsonaro now leads polls in half a dozen states, including those historically faithful to the big PSDB centrist party.

In Sao Paulo, the biggest and richest state, Bolsonaro polls at 22 percent, compared to 15 percent for the PSDB's candidate Geraldo Alckmin, a four-time ex-governor.

At a campaign stop Monday in Rio's Madureira neighborhood, the 63-year-old who frequently praises the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, got a rapturous reception.

Calls of "myth" have now become a standard feature of his rallies.

He's no great orator and in person can appear to lack the charisma of a leader like Lula.

But with Brazilians desperate to ditch the status quo after years of recession, rampant corruption and ever-growing violent crime, his provocative positions make him stand out.

In Madureira, which is surrounded by sometimes almost lawless favelas and where residents live with the constant danger of gunfire, Bolsonaro's pitch for looser gun control to allow self-defense met with particular approval.

"Guns don't feed violence, just as flowers don't bring peace," Bolsonaro said, responding to critics who say that flooding society with even more guns will only increase the bloodshed.

- 'Shoot 20 times' -

Bolsonaro has built his brand in large part by outdoing the 12 presidential rivals on social media. He has some 8.5 million followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Although well on the right, he has attracted surprising levels of support from some in the center and even the left.

Sixty percent of his supporters are under 34, showing that his pro-dictatorship talk sounds different to people who can't remember the period in person. He has sought backing from the Evangelical movement, which is socially conservative but includes both the rich and often the very poor.

Perhaps the message that carries furthest is Bolsonaro's push for a harder crackdown on crime.

Brazil is a country where police are already often engaged in low-level wars against gangs. About 64,000 people die in homicides a year.

But ordinary people can see that the war is not working and they are looking for new solutions.

Bolsonaro's solution is to adopt US-style notions of gun rights and self-defense.

"If one of us, civilian or military, is attacked and shoots back 20 times, he should be decorated, not prosecuted," he said in Madureira.

"Madureira is a very dangerous neighborhood. Bolsonaro comes with his ideas on security and they win over more and more people every day," said local Andre Goncalves, who shook Bolsonaro's hand.

Bolsonaro hints at a similarly muscular approach to the country as a whole.

His vice presidential pick, retired general Antonio Hamilton Mourao, last year suggested that the army might be obliged to "impose a solution" in Brazil if politicians continued on their current path. Bolsonaro says he would put generals in charge of six ministries.

Whether he can actually win a second round is another question, though.

Bolsonaro's opponents are passionate.

Forty-three percent of women, for example, say that they will not vote for someone who revels in misogynist statements and once told a fellow lawmaker she was too ugly to rape.

"There's a small possibility" of a win, said David Fleischer, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Brasilia.

If Bolsonaro did win the first round, "the other candidates would gang up on him and the other parties would coalesce behind the other candidate," Fleischer said.

But even if Bolsonaro doesn't win a runoff, the fact that he already has such sizeable support means Brazilian democracy is at risk, warns Ruy Fausto, a leftist academic. "It's enough to show you that the country is in trouble."