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LATIN AMERICA | 23-07-2018 11:44

Bolsonaro, Brazil's far-right candidate, formally enters presidential race

Less than three months from an election, the outcome of which is highly uncertain, a homophobic former Army officer who professes nostalgia for the country's military dictatorship is a key figure in the race.

Controversial extreme-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro formalised his candidacy on Sunday for Brazil's October presidential elections, boosted by strong social media support and polls that show him headed to a second round.

Bolsonaro, 63, rallied some 3,000 supporters in his Rio de Janeiro stronghold as he officially declared himself the candidate of the Social Liberal Party (PSL), a party he rejoined in March in the latest of a number of switches of allegiance he has made during his political career.

Less than three months from a race whose outcome is highly uncertain, the former Army officer, who professes nostalgia for the country's military dictatorship, is firmly rejected by part of the population put off by his racist, misogynistic and homophobic insults.

But others, however  see him as a saviour of a country that has been undermined by repeated corruption scandals.

"Bolsonaro is the person who can make a difference," said 35-year-old Gilmar Jasset, a bus-driver who attended the party rally Sunday dressed as his hero. "He is our hope, because he is not involved in corruption, and he is sincere."

The candidate never seems far from controversy. Earlier in the week in Goiânia city, he reiterated his promise to loosen Brazil's tight gun ownership restrictions to allow self-defence. But he angered some Brazilians by provoking a young girl to make the shape of a gun with her fingers.

A late June poll placed Bolsonaro on top with 17 percent of intended votes in the first round, in the absence of former leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has been in prison on a corruption conviction since April and whose candidacy will likely be blocked.

Ecologist Marina Silva polled second place at 13 percent, in a field where Brazil's more than 30 parties have until mid-August to name candidates.

Pollsters do not see Bolsonaro winning a second round.

'The myth'

Fans know him as "the myth" – they repeatedly chanted the word Sunday as he announced his candidacy -- and part of his appeal is simply that he is one of the rare well-known political figures in Brazil not to be tainted by corruption accusations.

But with his provocative style, several of his vice-presidential picks have rejected him.

The latest was Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, former head of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, whose party refused to align with the PSL.

Now, Bolsonaro has hinted that he could go with Janaina Conceição Paschoal, who was a lead lawyer for the case to strip Lula's successor Dilma Rousseff of the presidency in 2016.

Without allying with a big party, the veteran Congressman would only have eight seconds of air time for his television campaign ads, which are allotted according to a coalition's strength in parliament.

That feeds his strategy of rejecting traditional media, which Bolsonaro accuses of spreading false information, and betting more on social media, including his Facebook account with more than five million followers.

Divided nation

The most uncertain presidential race in recent Brazilian history kicked off on Friday, with centre-left candidate Ciro Gomes the first major party hopeful to officially throw his hat into the ring.

Should the race be Lula-free, Bolsonaro is currently the frontrunner.

It makes for the perfect political storm in Brazil, Latin America's biggest economy, which is still struggling to emerge from two years of recession – and struggling to put years of government-linked corruption scandals in the past.

Gomes, a 60-year-old lawyer and sharp-tongued political animal who has joined and left many a party over the years, launched his candidacy at the Democratic Labour Party (PDT) convention in Brasilia.

But he quickly suffered a setback as several centrist parties formed an united front and said they will back one of his rivals, former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB).

Gomes is hoping to be the main candidate for Brazil's political left in the absence of Lula, a former union leader who served as president from 2003 to 2011, but whose candidacy will likely be blocked by election officials.

Lula has said his conviction is a political sham designed to keep him from running for a third term, and his Workers' Party (PT) plans to officially announce his candidacy on August 4.

"In this context, it is difficult to make predictions. The relative crisis faced by the Workers' Party could benefit Ciro Gomes," explained Ricardo Sennes, of consultancy Prospectiva.

But Sennes also said anti-Lula sentiment could boost Bolsonaro.

Brazil is home to no less than 35 political parties, and convention season will run through August 5. The parties then have until August 15 to name their candidates.

Sometimes, the various groups form alliances – even if they are somewhat counter-intuitive – to maximise their campaign prospects. 

Public campaign funds and airtime on Brazil's main television channels can depend on a coalition's weight in parliament. The fact that campaign financing from businesses is forbidden during the election season makes those deals all the more crucial.

Deeply unpopular current President Michel Temer will not be running again, with his party instead (MDB) instead set to name former finance minister Henrique Meirelles as its candidate on August 2.

The two main governing parties in Brazil since the country returned to democracy – the Workers' Party and the PSDB – will meet at the last minute, on August 4, where they will announce Lula, against all odds, and Alckmin as their respective candidates.

- TIMES/AFP

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