If anything, last Sunday's surprise first-round election surge for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro revealed a bigger-than expected appetite for his polarising brand of conservative "God, homeland and family" politics, analysts say.
Bolsonaro got nearly two million more votes on Sunday than during his 2018 election, coming in at 43 percent of the vote compared to 48 percent for his opponent, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
The incumbent president went into the first round with about 36 percent of polled voters saying they intended to vote for him. But instead of trailing Lula by 14 percentage points as predicted by pollsters, Bolsonaro ended the vote only five points or about six million votes behind, and a real chance at a second term.
"A demonstration of the strength of Bolsonarismo," the Folha de São Paulo daily announced on its front page – referring to the incumbent's mix of pro-God, anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-left and anti-establishment political rhetoric.
"Bolsonarismo is growing more and more, and this is a reflection of a very conservative country," voter Mateus Alcantara, a 26-year-old publicist, told AFP in Rio de Janeiro in the aftermath of Sunday's vote.
His country, he added, was living a moment of "enormous polarisation."
Bolsonaro was thought to be entering the race damaged by a controversial four-year tenure marked by a shocking pandemic death toll blamed in part on his Covid-sceptic approach, surging destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and a sharp rise in Brazilians living in hunger.
He is frequently criticised for racist, homophobic and sexist remarks and for his vitriolic, combative approach to the media and critics.
But Bolsonaro's "Bibles, bullets and beef" base – Evangelical Christians, security hardliners and the powerful agribusiness sector – now appears to be larger than thought.
"This election shows how deeply rooted the conservative movement is in Brazil," sociologist Angela Alonso of the University of São Paulo wrote in a Folha de São Paulo opinion piece.
'More to the right'
Bolsonaro could also boast with better-than-predicted performances by many of his allies in congressional and gubernatorial races.
With his election in 2018, Brazil experienced an unprecedented wave in ultra-conservative voting that analysts at the time attributed to disgust with Lula's Workers' Party and its connection to a string of corruption scandals.
Now it seems that was not merely a reactive vote. More than half the senators elected in the first round last Sunday (15 out of 27) are Bolsonaro allies and his Liberal Party is on track to be the largest party in the lower house of Congress.
Victors included highly-controversial Bolsonarists such as Eduardo Pazuello, who led the Health Ministry during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic from May 2020 to March 2021.
Pazuello, who won a seat for Rio de Janeiro, had appeared before a Senate committee investigating a shortage of medical oxygen that caused the deaths of several dozens of patients in the northern city of Manaus.
"The polls had failed to perceive the strength of Jair Bolsonaro and his candidates," commentator Vera Magalhães noted in an editorial for the O Globo daily.
The results, she added, had been "more to the right than predicted."
For Jairo Nicolau, a political scientist at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, "some Brazilians are far-right, but Bolsonarism is more an expression of the country’s conservative movement."
His movement had replaced centre-right parties like the PSDB in power in the 1990s.
"The PSDB was a party of elites... This is where Bolsonaro makes a difference: he is truly a leader with the common touch, something the Brazilian right has not had for a long time," added analyst Mayra Goulart.
Commentator Jamil Chade with the website UOL drew parallels with populist movements in Viktor Orban’s Hungary or in the United States under Donald Trump.
Like there, "the Bolsonarists' strategy is to delegitimise the press, civil society or any external control body by creating channels of direct communication with the population to spread lies," he said.
Big night for far-right
Jair Bolsonaro was not the only one to have a surprisingly strong night in Brazil's elections: the far-right incumbent's allies also beat expectations in congressional and governor's races.
Political analysts say that means hardline conservatives will be powerful players in the Latin American giant's new political landscape, weakening leftist front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his Workers' Party (PT), even if he beats Bolsonaro in the October 30 presidential run-off.
Here’s a look at some of the big wins for "Bolsonarismo":
Bolsonaro's Liberal Party (PL) is on track to be the largest party in the lower house of Congress, according to analysts. Its newly elected congressmen include some of Bolsonaro's most controversial allies:
– Ex-environment minister Ricardo Salles won a seat for São Paulo. He presided over a surge in destruction in the Amazon rainforest and was forced to resign last year after coming under investigation for involvement in a timber-trafficking scheme.
– Ex-health minister Eduardo Pazuello won a seat for Rio de Janeiro. The Army general oversaw Brazil's response to Covid-19 during the worst phase of the pandemic, when hundreds of thousands of people died and severe oxygen shortages brought the health system in the northern city of Manaus to the brink of collapse.
– PL candidate Nikolas Ferreira, a 26-year-old social media personality, was the most-voted congressman-elect in the country, winning 1.4 million votes.
The PL and its allies won at least 15 of the 27 seats up for grabs in the 81-member Senate. Bolsonaro allies elected include:
– Former football star Romario, a Senate member since 2015.
– Ex-science minister Marcos Ponte, Brazil's first and only astronaut, who defied opinion polls to beat Lula ally Márcio França in São Paulo.
– Ex-women's minister Damares Alves.
– Ex-agriculture minister Tereza Cristina.
– Ex-development minister Rogerio Marino.
– Vice-President Hamilton Mourão, an Army reserve general.
Far-right incumbent Claudio Castro (PL) easily won re-election as Rio de Janeiro state governor.
In São Paulo, Brazil's most populous and wealthiest state, PL candidate Tarcisio Freitas, Bolsonaro's former infrastructure minister and a top ally, shattered forecasts to win the first-round vote and force a run-off with Lula protégé Fernando Haddad.
Adding to the bleak picture for Lula's camp, the lead judge and prosecutor who sent him to jail on controversial corruption charges – since overturned – both won seats in the Senate.
Ex-judge Sergio Moro and ex-prosecutor Delton Dallagnol are not exactly Bolsonaro allies – especially Moro, who quit his post as the far-right president's justice minister in 2020, accusing Bolsonaro of interfering in police investigations. But they are certainly no friends of Lula, whom their mega-graft-busting probe, Operation Lava Jato (“Car Wash”), sent to prison for 18 months.
by Louis Genot, AFP