Brazil election: Jair Bolsonaro makes Trumpian pledge as poll shows big lead

Rightwinger 15 points ahead as he rallies supporters with ‘make Brazil great again’ slogan

Supporters Jair Bolsonaro pose for picture in Brasilia on Saturday.
Supporters Jair Bolsonaro pose for picture in Brasilia on Saturday. Photograph: Adriano Machado/Reuters

The far-right frontrunner to become the next president of Latin America’s largest democracy has vowed to make Brazil great again, as election-eve polls gave him a commanding lead in what many view as the most important election in its history.

“Let’s make Brazil Great! Let’s be proud of our homeland once again!” Jair Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old former paratrooper notorious for his hostility to black and gay people, the environment and the left, proclaimed in a Trumpian live broadcast to his seven million Facebook followers on Saturday night.

“Together we are going to change Brazil!”

With just hours to go until 147 million Brazilians choose their next leader on Sunday, polls gave Bolsonaro a 15-point lead over his closest rival, the Workers’ party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, with about 40% of intended votes.

That would not be enough to avoid a second-round showdown with the leftist on 28 October, since an outright majority is required for a win. “It is unlikely that this election will be decided in the first-round,” said Glauco Peres, a political scientist from the University of São Paulo.

However, Bolsonaro’s ascendancy in the polls and the palpably erratic mood in Brazil is such that a first-round win is no longer considered an impossibility. “Everything here has been so unpredictable that I don’t know if I’ll put my neck on the line for anything anymore,” Peres said.

Anti-Bolsonaro protesters display placards with the hashtag #EleNao (not him) in Sao Paulo on Saturday.
Anti-Bolsonaro protesters display placards with the hashtag #EleNao (not him) in Sao Paulo on Saturday. Photograph: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

The prospect of a Bolsonaro presidency has horrified Brazilian minorities and progressives, with celebrities including Madonna, Cher and Stephen Fry also condemning the rise of a politician with a long and ignominious track-record of hate speech.

“If I see two men kissing each other in the street, I’ll whack them,” Bolsonaro told an interviewer in 2002. Nine years later he declared: “I’d rather my son died in an accident than showed up with some bloke with a moustache.”

The Margaret Thatcher-quoting, Donald Trump-admiring populist is also notorious for his regard for repression. “I am in favor of a dictatorship … We will never resolve serious national problems with this irresponsible democracy,” the presidential pacesetter, whose campaign team is packed with retired generals, once said.

On the eve of Sunday’s election, Bolsonaro’s rivals made last minute pleas for voters to reconsider.

“My country is walking towards a precipice,” warned Ciro Gomes, the Democratic Labour party candidate, who is in third place with about 15% of intended votes.

“Brazil is on the verge of an irreversible rupture,” warned Marina Silva, the fifth-placed Sustainability Network party candidate.

A PT campaign video likened Bolsonaro to Adolf Hitler and urged voters: “Not him!”

Bolsonaro followers, however, believe Brazil is on the verge of a historic shift under a corruption-busting, communist-combating conservative who can lead their country out of moral decay and its worst even recession.

“Bolsonaro is Brazil’s only option right now if it wants to avoid becoming a Venezuela,” said Paulo Henrique Villa Boas, a 46-year-old supporter from the north-eastern city of Recife. “Bolsonaro fights communists. They want to implement this ideology – which has killed millions of people in other countries – here in Brazil.”

Max Cavalcanti, another local follower, called Bolsonaro a patriot cut from the same cloth as Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini.

“They are all defenders of their territory, their fatherland. They are sovereignists,” said Cavalcanti, 34, adding: “It’s Bolsonaro against everyone – against the system.”