October 6, 2022

In Search of Political Salvation, Bolsonaro Deploys Wife and Her Prayers

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The opinion polls, I suggested to a senior evangelical lawmaker on a visit to Brasilia earlier this year, did not look good for President Jair Bolsonaro. What could still close the yawning gap with his main opponent before October’s race? He responded immediately, sitting back in his office chair. “Of course. Michelle.”

The first lady was reluctant, he confided. But in the face of the president’s waning popularity, the campaign strategists would press, as would his sons.

The wider Bolsonaro team has indeed talked her round. Having kept a low profile for much of his time in office, the president’s third wife is now everywhere, from stump speeches to the stilted Mother’s Day video in which she lauded government policies, alongside the minister for women, the family and human rights, an undisguised effort to connect with a vexatious constituency. No one seemed to fret that in turning to his wife and (currently) the only female cabinet minister to connect with 53% of the electorate, the president also offered a reminder of just how peripheral women remain in Brazilian politics — at least until their presence is expedient.

Relatively young at 40 to the president’s 67, Michelle Bolsonaro is easier on the eye, traditional, evangelical. Glossing over his economic missteps and his misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments, she smooths her husband’s rough edges and keeps the conversation on apolitical issues like family and religion.

Last month, at the launch of Bolsonaro’s re-election campaign in Rio de Janeiro, she showed what she could do. Encouraged to address the crowd, in between the religious invocations, she gave voters a glimpse of life in the Bolsonaro household. He sleeps poorly, she told them, worrying for the nation. She prays in his chair when he is gone, asking for courage and strength for the president. He is — she confided in the audience, flag-green outfit swishing — “chosen by God.” Cue thunderous applause.

The problem she is supposed to fix is obvious. With just over a month to go before the first round of votes in early October, Bolsonaro still lags former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, particularly with younger women, who reject him in significant numbers. No great surprise, perhaps, for a candidate who once told a rival lawmaker she was too ugly to rape.

He also needs to improve his fortunes with evangelical voters, and here again, Michelle is key. Evangelicals make up roughly a third of the Brazilian population and their community leaders have made the most of their political clout. Lacking a ready-made political support base, Bolsonaro has long courted the more conservative elements, including influential figures like televangelist Silas Malafaia. Though nominally Catholic, the president was baptized in the river Jordan. He appointed a pastor to serve as education minister (until corruption allegations hit) and another to the Supreme Court. Abortion, gender identity and home-schooling have been brought into political discourse — divisive issues that say more about the president’s efforts to portray himself as a defender of traditional values than about voters’ concerns.

In Rio, at a “March for Jesus” event, the first lady of this secular state, attending with her husband, wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the Brazilian flag and the words “Pray for Brazil.” Bolsonaro activists, meanwhile, circulated false rumors about Lula planning to close churches.

It appears to be working. The gap with Lula is narrowing. From 25 percentage points in May, according to Datafolha figures on second-round voting intentions in a race between the two leading candidates, it has come down to 17 percentage points last week. The number of people who say “there is no way” they would vote for Bolsonaro has slipped from 54% to 51%, while rejection of Lula has climbed. Surveys suggest the president is widening his advantage among evangelical voters, the middle class and narrowing his disadvantage among women.

Granted, it’s not all Michelle. For one, the more generous social provisions that Bolsonaro has introduced to shield poorer families from inflation appeal to the female-led households that are not only growing as a proportion of the total, but more frequently experience food insecurity. As Jeff Garmany, a senior lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Melbourne points out, Bolsonaro was also polling so badly with women that it would have been hard to do worse, and while the first lady does well with existing supporters, it’s hard to tell whether she changes minds.

Creomar de Souza, founder of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy, notes that this is one of the biggest problems of the campaign — while it can speak to the base, it is less clear that it reaches those outside the pro-Bolsonaro bubble. 

The president will still be happy for any gains, of course. But for Brazil, it’s far less clear that this is good news. In his desperation to bring in evangelical voters, Bolsonaro — whose slogan is “Brazil above everything, God above all” — ignores the official separation of church and state, widens divisions and brings intolerance to the fore. Earlier this month, the first lady shared a video of Lula in the northern state of Bahia taking part in a cleansing ritual particular to Afro-Brazilian faiths, with the outraged message “This, we can do, right! But having me speak about God, no.”

And for women? The strategy has even more worrying implications. For all Michelle Bolsonaro’s prominence, they remain peripheral and almost unrepresented in this race, as they are in Brazilian politics generally — subjected to social media harassment and targeted by political violence. The president could have addressed his lack of appeal with women by choosing a female running mate, like the well-regarded former agriculture minister Tereza Cristina. Instead, he plumped for a military man and has allowed a strategy that relies on his wife to fill the gap. (Lula too is fielding his third wife, the admittedly less traditional sociologist and activist Rosangela da Silva, known as Janja.)

Meanwhile, Simone Tebet, the most credible female candidate in this oxygen-sucking, clash-of-the-titans presidential race polls in low single digits. People of color fare even worse.

Whatever happens in October, Brazil seems likely to emerge more divided and polarized. Fixing that will require coming up with more creative, if not radical, solutions.

In Garanhuns, Lula’s home town in Brazil’s northeast, I met three women a few months ago trying to do just that, having stood as a trio for a single local council position to get around family and work constraints, naming themselves Fany das Manas — a play on the name of one of the three, lawyer Fany Bernal, and the informal word for sister. 

They met considerable resistance and prejudice, even within the party they chose to run with, Lula’s left-wing PT. “They only wanted one of us,” Bernal explains. They got three anyway.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion



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