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Lolita Victor Augusto Gill Ramirez//
Brazil’s voters may give bombastic candidate Jair Bolsonaro the presidency on election day Sunday


Brazilians voted Sunday in a bitterly contested presidential election that pits a little-known leftist against a far-right former army captain whose bombastic style has drawn comparisons to President Trump.

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Polls have shown Jair Bolsonaro, who has praised Brazil’s military dictatorships, defended the use of torture and insulted women and racial minorities, with a significant lead over leftist Fernando Haddad.

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Advertisement A Bolsonaro win would represent a sharp turn to the right for Latin America’s largest democracy, which has been ruled for much of the last 15 years by Haddad’s left-leaning Workers’ Party. He would be the latest in a string of right-wing populist and nationalistic leaders to come to power globally in recent years, a trend seen in the United States, Hungary and the Philippines.

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Bolsonaro’s blunt, provocative manner has divided a nation anxious about rising crime, high unemployment and a wide-ranging corruption scandal that has touched dozens of politicians — and has particularly stained the Workers Party.

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Many voters say they like Bolsonaro’s strong style, particularly his vows to be tough on crime and loosen gun laws to make it easier for Brazilians to carry firearms

Bolsonaro is the only one who can change this country now,” said Gislaine Freitas, a 54-year-old nurse who voted for him Sunday morning in Sao Paulo’s main business district

“I’ve been robbed before,” she said. “You don’t know what it’s like to have someone screaming at you with a gun pressed up against your head.”

Criminals, she said, “are going to have guns anyway, so why shouldn’t I be able to carry one too? At least Bolsonaro wants to keep decent, hard-working people safe.”

Other voters said they were worried that a Bolsonaro win would signal a return to the violence of Brazil’s military dictatorship, citing particular fears about his possible treatment of minorities, who Bolsonaro has said should “shut up” and “fall in line with the majority.”

Bolsonaro has praised leaders of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 as heroes and said the country’s biggest mistake during that era was not killing 30,000 more people

He has said he would rather have a dead son than one who was gay and that a congresswoman didn’t deserve to be raped by him because she was “very ugly.” His plan to boost the economy is to expand agribusiness on the land of indigenous Brazilians

Pedro Azevedo, a 33-year-old social worker who is gay and black, said he worries about his safety if Bolsonaro is elected

“I never feel 100% safe … but if Bolsonaro wins it’ll only get worse,” said Azevedo, who voted for Haddad

“People feel empowered to be violent when they see a leader who condones it,” he said. “Imagine what it’ll be like if they can legally carry guns too.”

Some political analysts and journalists have blamed a recent wave of political violence on Bolsonaro’s divisive rhetoric

There were at least 71 politically motivated violent attacks between Sept. 30 and Oct. 10, according to the Brazilian investigative journalism organization Publica. Of those attacks, 50 were attributed to supporters of Bolsonaro

Advertisement But Bolsonaro has also been a victim of violence. During a campaign rally in September, he was stabbed by a man who told police that God instructed him to do it. The man has been charged under Brazil‘s National Security Law with carrying out a politically motivated assault

The attack was the latest twist in the country’s most turbulent election campaign in memory

A few months ago, the Workers’ Party appeared set to reclaim the presidency, which it lost in 2016 when Dilma Rousseff was impeached on charges of manipulating the federal budget to try to conceal the country’s financial woes

Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who left office in 2010 with approval ratings near 90%, ran again this year, despite the fact that he is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence for his role in the wide-ranging Car Wash corruption scheme involving Brazil’s state-run oil company

Polls in late August showed Lula as the clear front-runner, with 39% of the vote. Many Brazilians associate him with the country’s surging economic growth during the late 2000s before a crippling recession hit in 2014

But Lula was declared ineligible because of a law that bars people convicted of crimes from running for election for eight years after they are released, and he abandoned his campaign in September

The Workers’ Party replaced him with Haddad. Relatively unknown outside São Paulo, where he served as mayor, Haddad has not inspired the same level of enthusiasm as Lula

Haddad has failed to connect with voters in the same way as Bolsonaro, who has shunned news conferences with journalists in favor of Facebook Live videos and messages on the chat program WhatsApp

Several entrepreneurs who have been bankrolling his campaign were recently accused of bombarding users on WhatsApp with hundreds of millions of messages containing false claims about Haddad, part of a wave of disinformation that has been rampant during the election

Brazil’s electoral court has banned some posts from social media and some campaign videos from airing on television, accusing them of spreading lies

The vitriolic campaign has turned some voters off to the electoral process altogether. A recent poll found many people plan to cast protest votes

A Datafolha poll found that 47% of respondents said they would vote for Bolsonaro and 39% said they would vote for Haddad, while 14% said they planned to cast blank ballots

Laura Carvalho, a 47-year-old banker in São Paulo, said that was her plan as she walked into a polling place Sunday

She said she voted for Bolsonaro during the first round of voting, held three weeks ago, in which Bolsonaro fell short of the 50% needed to win outright and avoid a runoff election

“I voted for Bolsonaro the first time, but I’m really not sure what to do now,” she said. “I have friends who are gay and black, and I worry about them because of all the people who have been attacked since the last vote.”

“But voting for Haddad doesn’t seem right either,” she said. “He’s just another Workers’ Party puppet there to represent Lula. Brazil’s economy can’t handle more corruption.”