Since becoming a democracy in 1985, after 21 years of military rule, Brazil has become used to wild and unpredictable elections. But this year’s presidential race, scheduled for October 7, is one for the history books. Last July, the front-runner, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known simply as Lula, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. He was accused of accepting a seafront triplex apartment from Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest construction firm, in exchange for contracts with Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company. But Lula’s prosecution did not stop him from continuing his presidential run from his jail cell in the southern city of Curitiba. He abandoned the race only after the Superior Electoral Tribunal ruled, on September 11, that he could not run while serving a prison sentence. Lula’s exit from the race forced his party, the leftist Workers’ Party, or PT, into plan B: It replaced Lula with Fernando Haddad, the former mayor of São Paulo and Lula’s minister of education.
Lula’s main opponent in the race, right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, has created plenty of drama of his own. Internationally, Bolsonaro is mostly known for his misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Among other things, Bolsonaro told Maria do Rosário, his colleague in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, that she was “very ugly” and therefore not “worth raping,” after she criticized the human-rights abuses of the military-dictatorship period (Bolsonaro was fined 10,000 reals, some $2,500, for his remarks); he said that he would be “incapable of loving a gay son” and that he would prefer his hypothetical gay son “die in an accident”; and he called refugees coming into Brazil from Haiti and Syria “the scum of the world.” On September 6, Bolsonaro was stabbed in the abdomen while campaigning. Because of the severity of the injuries (he reportedly lost 40 percent of his blood), Bolsonaro is staying away from the campaign trail.
Amid this political turmoil, a fire gutted Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, causing the destruction of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts from Brazil’s precolonial and imperial past, and one of the country’s leading centers for the study of social anthropology. The loss of the museum, the equivalent in the United States to losing the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a single calamity, has forced a wrenching national debate on whether Brazil has lost its way. Peter Fry, the British anthropologist and longtime resident of Brazil, notes that the fire mirrors “a cultural environment that values the construction of glamorous football stadiums and even a museum of tomorrow in the center of Rio, but has little time for looking after the past in the present.”
As might be expected, the latest polling presents a murky picture. Bolsonaro, boosted by a wave of sympathy following his stabbing and prolonged hospitalization, leads the pack with 28 percent of likely voters; followed by Haddad with 22 percent. Left-wing populist Ciro Gomes, an academic with a history of public service, has 11 percent; and São Paulo Governor Geraldo Alckmin, a favorite of the business community and Brazil’s oligarchical media, sits in fourth with 8 percent. Environmentalist Marina Silva trails all other candidates with 5 percent. Since the winner must secure at least 50 percent of the vote, it is almost a certainty that a second round of voting will be needed to decide the eventual winner. There is a sense that anything can happen, even as polls show Bolsonaro losing to most of the other candidates in the second round of voting.