Bolsonaro kicks off presidential bid at party convention

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro made official his bid to run for reelection in October, giving him three months to close a double-digit gap to secure victory.

The Liberal Party’s formal approval of Bolsonaro’s candidacy took place at its convention Sunday in a Rio de Janeiro stadium. Support was widely expected and merely symbolic, given that the far-right president has effectively been campaigning for months, crisscrossing the country to drum up support and remind voters why they shouldn’t back his nemesis, leftist former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

“We don’t need another ideology that hasn’t worked anywhere else in the world. We need to improve what we have,” Bolsonaro said on stage, surrounded by ministers, former ministers, family and other allies. “Our life wasn’t easy, but one thing comforts me isn’t seeing a communist sitting in that chair of mine.”

Bolsonaro has sought to characterize the upcoming race as a battle between good and evil, echoing his 2018 campaign that presented him as an outsider crusading to restore law, order and conservative values to a wayward nation. He joined the centrist Liberal Party in November after failing to found his own party.

People snaked through lines to enter the stadium, where the campaign jingle “Captain of the People” played repeatedly. Cheering supporters were decked out in the green-and-yellow national colors, though there were dozens of empty seats in the stadium, which has capacity of about 13,600.

Several supporters of the president told The Associated Press that if Bolsonaro doesn’t win a second term, Brazil will follow the catastrophic lead of Venezuela. And many spoke about how they don’t trust polls that show Bolsonaro trailing, and fully expect him to win.

Alexandre Carlos, 52, said he came to the convention to support Bolsonaro’s quest to make Brazil better, and that the president didn’t waver in his first term.

“It’s good versus evil and we’re in favor of the good,” Carlos said. “Bolsonaro is the only hope we have now to save the country.”

Da Silva, leads all polls to return to his former job — as he had in 2018 until his removal from that race due to a corruption conviction. That enabled Bolsonaro, then a seven-term fringe lawmaker, to cruise to victory. Da Silva’s conviction was annulled last year by the Supreme Court that ruled the judge overseeing the probe had been biased and colluded with prosecutors.

Bolsonaro faces an uphill battle. His approval ratings have recovered only slightly since declining during the pandemic. A congressional investigation last year recommended he and administration officials face criminal indictments for actions and omissions related to the world’s second highest death toll from the disease.

The latest survey by pollster Datafolha, in June, found more than half of respondents said they wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstance. And 47% of respondents said they plan to vote for da Silva, versus 28% for Bolsonaro, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Political analysts expect the race to tighten somewhat in coming months.

Bolsonaro’s administration recently limited interstate taxes to reduce gasoline prices for consumers — an effort aided by falling global oil prices — and approved an increased social welfare program that will begin next month and run through year-end. Bolsonaro announced Sunday that, if elected, the program will be extended into 2023.

The unemployment rate has also dipped below double digits for the first time since 2016, and economic prospects for this year have climbed steadily. Analysts surveyed by the central bank expect 1.75% growth, more than triple the level they forecast in April.

“The cumulative impact of a better economy, relief on inflation in July, and a larger cash transfer stipend does move the needle somewhat on the election. But not tremendously,” Christopher Garman, Americas managing director for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a July 19 note, forecasting the race will ultimately tighten to single digits.

The welfare program will provide a limited bump for Bolsonaro because the social class benefiting is more favorable to da Silva, according to Esther Solano, sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who has conducted targeted polling of potential Bolsonaro voters.

“There is a very strong attachment of this popular base to Lula. He is recognized as a political leader who actually cared about that base,” Solano said.

Bolsonaro is particularly struggling to draw support from female voters, and looking to his wife, an evangelical Christian, for help. Michelle Bolsonaro took the stage Sunday and delivered a speech full of biblical passages, at one point referring to her husband as “God’s chosen one.”

To help burnish his appeal among women, allies had encouraged him to tap his former agriculture minister, Tereza Cristina, as his vice president. Instead, Bolsonaro chose a fellow military man, Gen. Walter Braga Netto, who served as a special adviser.

With the possibility of a loss looming, Bolsonaro has insisted that the electronic voting system used since 1996 is susceptible to fraud, though never presented any evidence. Many political analysts have expressed fear that Bolsonaro — an outspoken admirer of Donald Trump — is preparing to follow the former U.S. president’s lead and reject results.

His unsubstantiated claims have been roundly dismissed, most recently after he called dozens of diplomats to the presidential palace to hold forth on the subject. Associations of prosecutors, judges and Federal Police expressed their faith in the current system, as did members of the Supreme Court and electoral authority, lawmakers include the Senate’s president, and the U.S. State Department.

Bolsonaro made no direct mention of the matter in his speech on Sunday.

Standing outside the stadium, Marcelo Cunha, 57, said he isn’t a Bolsonaro fanatic, but that the president is the only one who can prevent da Silva’s return to power, which he said would be “terrible.”

“It hasn’t been a government of great achievements, but I was OK with what was done,” Cunha said. “For me, it is the best option at the moment.”

___ Álvares reported from Brasilia.

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