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Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, speaks during a press conference in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, in this March 10 2021 file photo. Picture: ALEXANDRE SCHNEIDER/GETTY IMAGES
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil's former president, speaks during a press conference in São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, in this March 10 2021 file photo. Picture: ALEXANDRE SCHNEIDER/GETTY IMAGES

What do Madonna, the Pope, the mayor of Rome and Leonardo di Caprio have in common — other than a connection with Italy?  They are all communists — well, according to Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters — because they have all called, subtly and not so subtly, for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to be re-elected president of Brazil.

On Sunday Brazilian voters return to the polls for the runoff in one of most consequential elections there in years — and one that could have a vast (if underestimated) impact in the rest of the world. 

The two presidential candidates are incumbent right-winger Jair Bolsonaro and left-wing former president Lula . They cannot be further apart in experience, character, policies, manners ... essentially everything.

Lula is an elder statesman who riveted the UN General Assembly, organised mass vaccinations during the Sars pandemic in the early 2000s, helped grow Brazil’s economy and lifted millions out of poverty.

Bolsonaro, on the other hand, is more akin to that uncouth and clueless uncle you have no choice but to invite to family gatherings because he is family, but would prefer not to because of the racist jokes he tells while ogling girls’ legs with his wife sitting next to him. 

The election has certainly become exciting and unpredictable. Before the first round many pundits predicted a resounding win for Lula. And while he got the most votes, he didn’t get the required 50% plus one that would have secured him the presidency without the need for a run-off — to the immense disappointment of his followers worldwide.

Bolsonaro’s performance was astounding. The polls consistently gave Lula as much as a 10% lead. So what happened? It turns out that many Bolsonaro supporters do not reply honestly to the pollsters, which meant many Lula supporters (me included) over-estimated his chances of winning in round one. 

While Lula still leads the polls for the runoff, with the honesty of Bolsonaro’s supporters in question I don’t think anyone can confidently predict a Lula win. And even if he does win, he faces an uphill battle against a hostile congress and senate dominated by Bolsonaro supporters, as well as an almost evenly divided electorate who appear to despise each other.

And if Lula wins by a narrow margin, the question remains whether Bolsonaro will accept the result. He has already cast doubt on the electoral process in the first round, and the Brazilian military (which has never happily accepted the end of military rule) insisted on conducting its own audit of the results (failing which they wouldn’t accept them). Their audit result has never been published.

Bolsonaro has also created widespread mistrust of the Brazilian judiciary and has had frequent and ugly spats with supreme court justices (except with the two pliant evangelical judges he appointed to the court during his term, who appear to have no problems with Bolsonaro’s frequent attacks on the judiciary).

However, events in the past two weeks may well seal his fate. In a recent online interview Bolsonaro admitted once driving his motorcycle past a shelter for Venezuelan refugee teenage girls in the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. Bolsonaro, who is 67, said he stopped and invited himself in, and claimed “things got hot”, insinuating that the girls may be “creatures of the night” who were getting dressed to earn their keep on the streets of Brasilia.

This led to commentators accusing him of being a paedophile. The shelter itself vehemently denied that the girls are prostitutes. Bolsonaro’s wife, and his former minister of the family, woman & human rights Damares Alves (who also happens to be an evangelical pastor) then visited the shelter, ostensibly to comfort the girls, though some suspect they went to intimidate them to keep quiet about what had really happened.

Last week one of Bolsonaro’s longest and staunchest supporters, Roberto Jefferson (Bob Jeff for short), who was under house arrest on subversion charges, was arrested for breaching his conditions after he called one of the supreme court justices, Cármen Lúcia Antunes Rocha, a prostitute and harlot, among other things. 

He did not go quietly, firing 20 shots at federal police officers who were sent to take him into custody, wounding two. He then threw two hand grenades at the police before being taken away.  The prosecutors promptly added two charges of attempted murder to his charge sheet. When the police searched his house they discovered a whole arsenal of weapons, which made many think he had been planning an assault on the police for some time. 

Despite a decades-long, well documented friendship and hundreds of pictures and videos of him with Bob Jeff, Bolsonaro suddenly claims he doesn’t know him and that he’s actually a Lula supporter. He even went so far as to say there is not a single picture of him with Jefferson, despite there being hundreds of them online, easily available on a Google search.

The most bizarre aspect of the Bolsonaro presidency for me is the support he enjoys among evangelical Christians. I grew up in a missionary house, so I have some inkling of Christian teachings, none of which I have seen among Bolsonaro’s evangelical followers. Any suggestion that one should help the less fortunate, or even just wearing red clothes, results in one being branded a communist.

Do they even know what communism is?  The Cardinal of São Paulo was branded a communist recently because he was wearing the traditional red vestment that all Roman Catholic cardinals wear. The ignorance and invective of Bolsonaro’s supporters are astonishing.

They have even invaded Catholic (again, read communist) churches hurling abuse at priests (communists, obviously) who preach that the poor must be cared for. According to the Gospel of Bolsonaro chapter 1 verse 1, Jesus apparently never wanted us to care for the poor, the downtrodden, the widows or the orphans. Only the wealthy deserve our compassion and tax breaks.

The fact that Bolsonaro has many poor supporters (who believe they are rich even though their credit card debt has gone through the roof) shows to me that one of capitalism’s major feats was convincing the poor to defend billionaires. We all think that once our employment rights have been taken away we can all become the next Elon Musk.

I lived in São Paulo from 2000 to 2002 and have subsequently been to Brazil many times after falling in love with the country and its people. I maintain close personal and professional relationships with Brazil. I have travelled to 17 of Brazil’s 26 states, from the far north to the far south, and met Brazilians from all ranks of life, from the Amazon jungle while sailing the Amazon River to quaint German towns in the south while visiting clients.

The Brazil of today under Bolsonaro is not the Brazil I got to know and love in 2000. It is heartbreaking to see how Brazilian society became so divided. I have lost friendships, possibly even clients, over my support for Lula, but I will not change my view or remain quiet. Under Lula Brazil was a powerhouse, not a country where you shoot your neighbour at his birthday party because he put up posters of Lula (as has happened).

Lula was persecuted and unfairly jailed by an incompetent and partial judge, his conviction eventually set aside by the Brazilian Supreme Court- one of the reasons Bolsonaro supporters despise the courts. I for one am hoping that a Lula presidency will restore at least some civility to this wonderful country.

The results of the runoff should be available in the early hours of Monday morning, SA time. Thanks to Brazil’s revolutionary electronic voting system, the results are available within a few hours after the polls close.

The outcome will have a definite impact on the world.  If Bolsonaro wins it will embolden the conservative, right-wing evangelical movement worldwide and give him free reign to continue with his assault on the Brazilian judiciary. It will also spur further catastrophic deforestation of the Amazon, which on Bolsonaro’s watch has reached record levels.

Many scientists say the Amazon will soon become a net emitter of carbon dioxide if deforestation is not contained soon. If Lula wins, it will be the return of an adult to the presidency, with policies that enable economic growth without harming the poor or the environment.

It will also hopefully lead to a Brazilian ambassador being appointed to SA again. The Brazilian embassy in Pretoria has been without an ambassador for a year, and the lack of definitive leadership has started to show in the past few months.

• Myburgh is an attorney practising in Johannesburg and São Paulo.

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