The Fort Worth Press - Bolsonaro: Brazil's polarizing far-right president

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Bolsonaro: Brazil's polarizing far-right president
Bolsonaro: Brazil's polarizing far-right president / Photo: © AFP/File

Bolsonaro: Brazil's polarizing far-right president

Four years after storming in to shake up a Brazil disgusted with politics-as-usual, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro finds it increasingly hard to cast himself as an outsider, but remains as vitriolic and polarizing as ever.

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The 67-year-old incumbent is due to officially launch his reelection bid Tuesday in the place that cemented him in the minds of die-hard supporters as "The Myth": the small southeastern city of Juiz de Fora.

It is where an attacker stabbed Bolsonaro in the abdomen at a rally for his 2018 campaign, nearly killing the ex-army captain turned congressman.

Known for a brash, divisive style that earned him the nickname "Tropical Trump," Bolsonaro had surged to prominence on the campaign trail that year by playing to voters disgusted with Brazil's economic implosion and the massive "Car Wash" corruption scandal.

When he survived the knife attack -- perpetrated by an assailant who was later declared mentally unfit to stand trial -- it only fueled followers' belief in their "Messias," or "Messiah" -- Bolsonaro's middle name.

But the aura of invincibility around the president has faded as he enters the home stretch of his term with the economy sputtering, his popularity flagging and ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), his leftist nemesis, leading him in the polls for October's elections.

- Tough talker -

Tapping widespread outrage, Bolsonaro won the presidency in a landslide in 2018, with broad support from the business sector, voters fed up with corruption, and the powerful "beef, bullets and Bibles" caucus -- the farm lobby, security hardliners and Evangelical Christians.

Supporters love his gloves-off style, anti-establishment message and everyman touch on social media, where his movement thrives.

But he infuriates critics with his divisive vitriol and disdain for political correctness, often drawing accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia.

And his support has badly eroded among the political center and business sector as his administration has floundered through various crises.

Bolsonaro insistently downplayed Covid-19, defied expert advice on fighting it and mocked face masks, social distancing and vaccines, warning the latter could "turn you into an alligator" -- even as the death toll in Brazil surged to become one of the highest in the world, second only to the United States at more than 680,000.

Bolsonaro faces international outcry over the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, which has surged on his watch, fueled by cattle ranches encroaching on the jungle.

He also faces dozens of impeachment requests and a series of corruption scandals involving his inner circle.

He is betting on big new welfare benefits that started this month to boost his support from low-income voters -- but faces accusations of economic populism and fueling already soaring inflation.

- 'Prison, death or victory' -

Born in 1955 to a Catholic family with Italian roots, Bolsonaro served as an army paratrooper before starting his political career in 1988 as a Rio de Janeiro city councilor.

Two years later, he was elected to the lower house of Congress, where he served until becoming president.

He has ignited one explosive controversy after another with his remarks.

In 2011, he told Playboy magazine he would rather his sons be killed in an accident than come out as gay.

In 2014, he made headlines by saying a left-wing lawmaker was "not worth raping" because she was "too ugly."

He is openly nostalgic for Brazil's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, whose "mistake," he said in 2016, "was to torture and not kill" leftist dissidents.

Bolsonaro has cultivated a close relationship with the army top brass, selecting General Walter Souza Braga Netto, his onetime defense minister and chief of staff, as his running mate.

Many Brazilians fear Bolsonaro could try to fight the election result if he loses, following in the footsteps of his political role model, ex-US president Donald Trump.

Bolsonaro regularly rails against Brazil's electronic voting machines, alleging -- without evidence -- that they are plagued by fraud.

He has hinted he will not leave the presidency without a fight, saying his reelection bid can only have three outcomes: "prison, death or victory."

Bolsonaro has four sons -- three of them politicians -- and, in what he called a moment of "weakness," a daughter.

L.Davila--TFWP