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Brazil Set To Vote In Presidential Run-Off Election That Has Polarized The Nation


On Sunday, the people of Brazil will choose their next president. The favorite to win is a retired Army captain from the far-right, Jair Bolsonaro. And he openly admires their country's past military dictatorship. This election's a second round runoff between Bolsonaro and a candidate from the leftist Workers' Party. The race has bitterly polarized Latin America's largest democracy. We're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves. He's in Rio de Janeiro. Hey there, Philip.


CORNISH: So is this election essentially a done deal? Is he that far ahead?

REEVES: Well, it certainly looked that way over the last couple of weeks. Jair Bolsonaro has had an 18-point lead in the polls thanks to his ability to capitalize on deep public contempt and anger in Brazil towards establishment politicians. He's done that despite being a congressman himself for many years. And he's channeled that anger at his rival from the Workers' Party, blaming that party for the recent recession, which was the worst in Brazil's history, and for a huge corruption scandal because that party was in power when those two crises began to play out. However, the latest poll from yesterday shows that the Workers' Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, has narrowed or has made some ground and that the lead of Bolsonaro has narrowed to 12 points.

CORNISH: Why are we seeing this late swing away from Bolsonaro? What's driving it?

REEVES: It's hard to be certain, but there have been a couple of incidents this week that might have been factors. Bolsonaro made a speech in which he talked about his leftist opponents as red bandits and said he wanted to drive them off the map in a manner never before seen in the history of Brazil. And also a video emerged from July in which one of his sons who's also a congressman is heard talking about how easy it would be to shut down the Supreme Court. That's earned him a rebuke from the chief justice of Brazil.

And analysts here think that this has set alarm bells ringing about whether Bolsonaro's a threat to democracy because although this country seems to be swinging far to the right, polls show that Brazilians strongly favor keeping their democracy and don't want to return to the dark years of the 1964 to 1985 military dictatorship.

CORNISH: So given that polling, are these worries about Bolsonaro well-founded?

REEVES: Well, Bolsonaro says that he's going to respect the constitution. He wants a government, he says, of authority but not an authoritarian government - and that he says he doesn't want a military takeover. Nor, he says, does the army. And he has distanced himself from his son's comments about the Supreme Court, characterizing those really as a mistake.

CORNISH: We've been talking about political divisions here in the U.S., but I understand that campaign has been fairly nasty. Can you talk about what that looks like?

REEVES: Well, it started out being nasty right from the beginning. I mean, Bolsonaro himself was stabbed and severely injured in early September. And since then, we have seen a brawl on WhatsApp, which has been awash with fake news and abuse. Of course people have been recalling Bolsonaro's past record of making misogynist and racist and homophobic remarks, and that has been out there. And people have been reminded of all that.

There's been a big scandal about a report that emerged showing that businesses have been bankrolling mass messages via WhatsApp targeting Bolsonaro's opponent, Fernando Haddad. And also there have been attacks on the street which are related to the election and attacks and threats against journalists, so it has been a pretty nasty campaign.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.