Violence Spurs Support for a Radical in Once-Calm Southern Brazil

Gabriel Stargardter, Reuters, September 28, 2018

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Compared with Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, nevermind troubled cities in Brazil’s poor northeast, Porto Alegre enjoyed lower crime and homicide rates, and a reputation for wealth and tranquility. Its residents, most of European descent, prided themselves on a clean, prosperous and progressive hometown.

In recent years, though, Porto Alegre has become more like the rest of Brazil – wracked by recession, political instability and social ills including rising poverty and soaring crime. Porto Alegre’s murder rate, fueled in part by the rapid spread of drug gangs, has reached nearly double the national average.

So, just days before a presidential election in Latin America’s biggest democracy, people in the city of almost 1.5 million people want drastic change. And in the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right Congressman long considered an outlier from the political fringe, many see what they’re looking for.

Over a five-day period in Porto Alegre, Reuters interviewed dozens of voters, local politicians, state officials and public security experts to understand support for a candidate most Brazilians once considered unthinkable as their president.

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While polls vary, support for Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre and across Brazil’s south remains higher than anywhere else in the country – reaching 30 percent of likely voters in projections for a first-round vote Oct. 7, according to a survey this week by pollster Ibope.

The poll showed Fernando Haddad, a leftist, gaining ground and indicated that Bolsonaro would likely lose against him and other opponents in an Oct. 28 runoff.

Capitalizing on a political career largely untainted by graft accusations – no small feat in a country roiled by corruption scandals – Bolsonaro has garnered growing support with proposals and incendiary statements that in better times would have been electoral non-starters.

Among other measures, Bolsonaro wants to loosen gun laws, overhaul popular social welfare programs and privatize state-run enterprises. {snip}

In three decades as Congressman for the state of Rio, he has espoused views widely considered sexist, racist and homophobic. He has defended torture, suggested the assassination of a former president, told a fellow Congresswoman that she “didn’t deserve” to be raped by him and said that Afro-Brazilian descendants of slaves “aren’t good enough even to procreate.”

“Can’t Take This Any Longer”

Despite uproar from critics, Bolsonaro refuses to apologize for any of it, delighting passionate supporters who refer to him as “a legend” and regularly mimic his trademark trigger salute.

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As fortunes shift across southern Brazil, most major candidates, including Bolsonaro, are looking to tap the growing frustrations there. In addition to frequent visits to Porto Alegre and other southern cities, four presidential candidates, including Bolsonaro, have picked “gauchos,” as natives of Rio Grande do Sul are known, as running mates.

Hamilton Mourao, a retired Army general who shares the ticket with Bolsonaro, has enraged critics by suggesting military intervention to end corruption and with talk of curbing civil liberties and rewriting the constitution.

During a visit to Rio Grande do Sul in the days before his stabbing, Bolsonaro told supporters at Porto Alegre’s airport that he represented an end to politics as usual. Nodding to the surging crime rates and violence, he vowed to reverse laws that prohibit most Brazilians from owning guns.

“We can’t take this any longer,” he said, as cheers erupted. “We’ll attack this problem of violence by letting law-abiding citizens carry firearms.”

As Brazil slowly emerges from its worst recession in decades, it is struggling with mounting violence. While the downturn and higher unemployment are believed to have fostered upticks in crime, much of the bloodshed is caused by turf wars between fast-growing gangs that control drug routes and other illicit activities.

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“I Am Going to Vote for Him”

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Local officials say it’s no surprise voters want answers fast, especially now that violence in the state, still one of Brazil’s wealthiest, resembles that in the rest of the country.

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The frustrations, and consequent support for Bolsonaro’s law-and-order candidacy, are voiced at both ends of the economic spectrum.

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