SÃO PAULO—Jair Bolsonaro, a firebrand ex-army captain known for defending Brazil’s former military dictatorship and making misogynistic remarks, has built a loyal following among conservatives, farmers and evangelical Christians.
But polls show millions of other voters—from Amazon tribesmen to city bankers to growing numbers of women—are also backing him ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential elections Sunday. It is the only way, they say, to defeat the leftist Workers’ Party, which oversaw Brazil’s deepest recession and biggest corruption scandal, and whose founder, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is now in jail.
“Repudiation and anger are the two emotions driving these elections,” said Monica de Bolle, a Latin American specialist at Johns Hopkins University, calling the vote a referendum on the benefits of democracy and the ills of corruption.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity mirrors the rise of antiestablishment politicians globally. But few political analysts here believed he would ever get more than 20% of the vote—mainly those of wealthy, white men. Running for the small PSL party, Mr. Bolsonaro has had a fraction of the cash and airtime of his rivals, relying instead on social media. He also spent much of the past month in a hospital after being stabbed at a rally.
Yet on the eve of the first-round vote Mr. Bolsonaro is the clear front-runner, with 32% support, ahead of Fernando Haddad’s 21% for the Workers’ Party. With many Brazilians expected to abstain or refuse to pick a candidate, people close to his campaign are now cautiously optimistic he can get a majority of the vote to win outright on Sunday, avoiding the Oct. 28 runoff.
With the other 11 presidential candidates struggling to make headway, many Brazilians say they see little point in voting for anyone but Mr. Bolsonaro or Mr. Haddad, whose party’s social-justice agenda is widely popular among the poor.
Winning the presidency is never an easy task in a divided nation of 209 million people with gaping income inequality. But the São Paulo-born congressman has tapped into two things Brazilians have in common today: a hatred of politicians and a fear of crime.
Mr. Bolsonaro is one of the few politicians untainted by the Car Wash corruption scandal that has beleaguered the upper echelons of Brazilian politics and business. He has seized on that to portray himself as an outsider to Brazil’s rotten political establishment, despite having been a congressman for the state of Rio de Janeiro since 1991.
He has also vowed to crack down on crime in what has become the most murderous country in the world, with 175 homicides a day. His proposals include better equipping police forces, reducing the age of criminal responsibility to 16 from 18, and loosening gun laws to allow for self-defense.
It is a message that has even won over some voters within indigenous communities in the Amazon, where firearms are popular in some villages. His liberal economic stance also appeals to younger tribesmen, said Ubiratan Maia, a member of the Wapishana tribe who has campaigned for Mr. Bolsonaro.
“The left confused poverty for culture,” he said. “We don’t want to be poor, we want to be entrepreneurs.”
MIGUEL SCHINCARIOL/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Mr. Bolsonaro, who has admitted to knowing nothing about economics, has put his trust in University of Chicago-trained economist and potential finance minister Paulo Guedes, who has vowed to shrink the government’s role in the economy, privatize state assets and give the central bank full independence.
That approach has gone down well in financial markets, but also among ordinary Brazilians who have so little confidence in the government that they are losing faith in democracy. Only 13% of Brazilians say they are satisfied with democracy, the lowest level in Latin America, according to a study last year by Chilean-based pollster Latinobarómetro.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who joined the army as a young man in the middle of the 1964-85 military dictatorship, has at times shown a disregard for democracy, once advocating shutting down congress and joking in a 1999 interview that the presidential palace is “a good place to test a nuclear bomb.”
His army friends describe the 63-year-old as playful, honest and brutally direct.
But outside his military circle, his comments have appalled swaths of the electorate.
During a debate on a public television network in 2010, Mr. Bolsonaro advocated beating children to stop them from “turning gay,” and later said that no parent is proud to have a gay child.
In 2014, he told a female lawmaker she wasn’t pretty enough to rape. He recently said he would pay female employees less because they get pregnant, and he described having a daughter, his fifth child after four sons, as a “moment of weakness.” His running mate, Gen. Hamilton Mourão, last month called single-mother households “factories for misfits.”
Incensed Brazilian women took to the streets across Brazil last weekend in protest. Pollsters now predict that half of female voters won’t back the thrice-married conservative under any circumstances—a major challenge to his campaign, but not an insurmountable one.
Many women who support his policies on crime and corruption say they are willing to overlook such comments in a country where misogyny is commonplace and many men—and women—believe a woman’s place is in the home.
Consuelia Marques, a 33-year-old manicurist and avid supporter of the ex-army captain, said his comments about women are irrelevant. “Brazil is broken,” she said, praising his proposal to arm civilians. “Criminals are going to think twice if they know people are armed.”
Mr. Bolsonaro’s popularity among women has actually risen in the past week, a bump analysts attribute to the decision of Edir Macedo, Brazil’s most powerful evangelical leader, to endorse him. His support among female voters is now at 27%, compared with 20% for Mr. Haddad, according to pollster Datafolha.
Mr. Bolsonaro, whose middle name is Messiah, was baptized in the Jordan River and enjoys fervent support among evangelical Christians who now make up a third of all Brazilians.
Like women, some gay Brazilians continue to support Mr. Bolsonaro but are reluctant to say so, leading his supporters to predict a surprise jump in support in Sunday’s vote.
“The thing I most like about Bolsonaro is his sincerity—something that is missing nowadays,” said Smith Hays, an openly gay congressional candidate in Mr. Bolsonaro’s party. Mr. Hays said he thinks Mr. Bolsonaro isn’t prejudiced, just confused: “These are personal issues, there are other bigger things at stake in the country.”
For business owners and those in financial markets, the choice in one respect is simple: Mr. Bolsonaro isn’t the Workers’ Party. Not only do they blame the leftist party for the 2014-16 recession, but they fear Mr. da Silva’s imprisonment may have radicalized the party, pointing to its continued support of Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime in neighboring Venezuela.
“I’m not saying Bolsonaro is a good thing,” said one asset manager in São Paulo whose wife and daughter joined the recent marches. “He’s not my second choice, even my third choice, but he’s the least worst option we now have.”
Cris Faga/Zuma Press