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LATIN AMERICA | 05-09-2021 08:44

LGBTQ governor who backed Bolsonaro now wants Brazil's top job

Eduardo Leite is one of the few Brazilian governors of the millennial generation, and he’s the first openly LGBTQ politician to run for the presidency. But, as a relative unknown, is there any way he can compete with Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The presidential hopeful favoured by investors in what's shaping up to be a divisive and brutal election campaign in Brazil is the 36-year-old governor of a conservative state who just came out as LGBTQ.

Eduardo Leite rode President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing wave into office in 2018, winning over financial markets with a program of fiscal austerity and privatisations in his southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, which shares borders with Argentina and Uruguay. His challenge now is to make himself known to the broader population, who largely have never heard of him, starting with Brazilians who reject both the incumbent and his leftist adversary, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

He walks a fine line. He criticises Bolsonaro but voted for him. And he says that although he supports equality, he won’t be an activist for LGBTQ rights. 

“In the election next year, we’ve got to create a path that is free from the Lula-Bolsonaro dispute,” he says on an icy August night, during an interview at the residential wing of the governor’s palace where he lives with his two dogs.

The prospect of dramatic change in Brazil in 2022 is great: Bolsonaro’s popularity has never been lower, and Lula is steadily edging up in the polls. But 42 percent of voters say they haven’t yet made up their minds. 

“Leite is a very plausible name, and one of the most viable names for a ‘third way,’” says Deysi Cioccari, political science professor at Catholic University of São Paulo. “He is elegant in his political answers, he is thoughtful and calm, and this is in a certain way what Brazil needs to see itself as having some kind of normality.”

His first hurdle is making it past the PSDB party primaries in November by defeating his strongest competition, São Paulo governor João Doria. Although the PSDB backed Bolsonaro in 2018 and often continues to do so in Congress, Doria has been a highly-visible critic of the president’s erratic pandemic response and at the forefront of social isolation and vaccination efforts. But Doria’s preppy image – a wealthy man with a pastel Ralph Lauren cardigan slung over his shoulders -- is a tougher sell in Brazil’s poorer regions. 

Investors currently seem to like Leite: he was selected as the person most likely to beat Bolsonaro and Lula by 45 percent of respondents in an August XP Investments survey of 75 financial market investors.

What is more difficult to measure is whether Brazilian voters are ready for an LGTBQ president. 

 

Coming out

“Brazil should be prepared for this,” says Leite, citing a poll in which 76 percent of those surveyed said a candidate’s sexuality would not “interfere” with their vote.

He grew up the youngest of three in the smaller southern city of Pelotas, where his father, an academic, unsuccessfully ran for mayor while Leite was still a toddler. After earning a law degree and losing a race for city council at the age of 19, he eventually achieved what his father couldn't when he was elected mayor of Pelotas in 2012.

But ever since beginning his political career, Leite says that he knew he’d have to publicly address his identity. His strategy was to get ahead of the narrative “before being accused of making a political calculation.” 

Coming out meant also asking his partner, a doctor living in another state, to come out to his family as well. He says he felt it was important to be open about it, “so that people would fully know who they were supporting, and not get surprised out of nowhere along the way.”

Bolsonaro was elected on a socially conservative platform and has spoken out against what he calls “gender ideology,” shorthand for anything not promoting heterosexuality. The governor recognizes Bolsonaro’s role in creating a climate tinged with homophobia. “In Brazil nowadays, unfortunately, this [homosexuality] is one theme to discredit people, especially because of the way that Bolsonaro talks about it.”

The segment of Brazilian voters that has grown the most in the past decade are evangelicals, whose views condemn homosexuality; Leite is likely to lose their votes.

Some suggest he is primed for a kind of karmic retribution for how he voted last election. “Like other LGBT+ conservatives that jumped on board Bolsonarismo as an electoral strategy for 2018, now the governor is the victim of the homophobic attacks the president supports,” said the Brazilian group #VoteLGBT in an email.

Others are more supportive. “It is a courageous gesture, no doubt,” says Toni Reis, director-president of the National Alliance of LGBTI+. “Independent of ideological questions and all the attacks that he will suffer, we’re in the trenches to defend him.”

Those hoping he will promote the banner of LGBTQ rights in Brazil, though, may be disappointed. Although he says “the correct direction for the country is toward respect, tolerance, and the quest for equality,” he’s not going to be waving the rainbow flag anytime soon.

“It’s not a cause I lay down for,” he said. “Not every woman is a feminist activist, not every black person is a racial activist, and not every gay person needs to be an activist.” 

 

Regretful Bolsonarista

More than half a million Brazilians have died from Covid-19, whose mourning family members will remember that when election day arrives next October. Many of them hold Bolsonaro directly responsible for the deaths. 

The president pushed hydroxychloroquine and ignored vaccine offers, and a congressional inquiry has uncovered evidence of a kickback scheme in the purchase of shots. As scandal enveloped the administration, his approval rating sank, generating social media groups for “repentant Bolsonaro voters.”

Leite is one of them. “I’m one of those people who voted for Bolsonaro without being in agreement with the barbarities that he says,” Leite says, adding that he regrets the decision because he’d hoped that “the government would be different.” 

Unlike Bolsonaro and Lula, Leite has little name recognition: when put up against them in the most recent poll he won just four percent of the vote, and he slid into the governor’s office by a small margin. In contrast to the president, who doesn't have a party, he’s also firmly situated himself inside of the box of Brazilian party politics, a strategy that may pay off in the primaries.

But Leite has plenty going for him. His state has the fourth-largest GDP in the country, but when he took the helm it was on the verge of bankruptcy. He successfully passed an administrative reform and he’s privatized some state companies. His vaccine push has been even more speedy for some age groups than his rival Doria’s in São Paulo. His polished good looks certainly don’t hurt.

He’s one of the few Brazilian governors of the millennial generation, and he’s the first openly LGBTQ politician to run for the presidency. 

“I might make new mistakes,” he says, “but I won’t make the same old mistakes.” 

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