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Brazil’s president, trailing in polls, turns to God and money

fFrancesco TeixeiraThe 47-year-old former construction worker in a São Paulo slum has vivid memories of Brazil’s leftist leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s presidency from 2003 to 2010. He earns a salary and benefits, his relatives are poor, and the northeastern state of Piauí gets enough government help that they don’t have to relocate to São Paulo. Then came a corruption scandal, a recession and the impeachment of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Mr Teixeira was fired and started driving a taxi. In 2018, he voted for former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro.

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Now, the fedora-wearing father of three has had another change of heart. Frustrated with the right-wing president’s mismanagement of the pandemic and fed up with high inflation and unemployment, he plans to vote for former President Lula in Brazil’s Oct. 2 election. “No one is a saint, but Lula is a better president,” he explained. With just over a month to go until the election campaign, Lula has 47 percent support, according to pollster DataFolha, to Bolsonaro’s 32 percent (see chart). If no candidate receives more than 50% of the valid votes cast, a second round will be held on October 30. Lula is counting on support from cash-strapped Brazilians like Mr Teixeira. Mr Bolsonaro wants to win them over.

The president faces an uphill battle. Among the 52% of Brazilian voters whose household income is less than twice the minimum wage (2,424 reais, or $480 a month), Lula leads: 55% to Bolsonaro’s 23% . To win more votes, the government will spend 41 billion reais on fuel subsidies, relief for truck drivers and taxi drivers, and increased monthly cash transfers for the 20 million poorest Brazilians. But while the gap between Lula and Mr Bolsonaro has narrowed from 21 points in May to 15 now, Mr Bolsonaro has failed to win much support among the poor.

Many people have fond memories of Lula’s presidency.Fueled by the commodities boom of the early 2000s, Lula launched dozens of social programs, including the popular monthly cash transfer, the family allowance (Family Fund).Mr Bolsonaro revised the plan last year and renamed it Auxilio Brazil (Brazilian aid). “Bolsonaro changed his name and tried to sell it as his idea,” mocked Mr Teixeira. Maria Hermínia Tavares of the University of São Paulo said the poor had no reason to fear that Lula would cut their 600 reais benefit after it expires in December. They probably thought he was more likely to extend it. “People don’t vote out of gratitude, they vote with the future in mind,” she said.

The 2018 election was dominated by outrage over graft. This time the economy matters most. Mr Bolsonaro’s efforts to reform pensions and cut bureaucracy have been overshadowed by his delays in vaccine procurement during covid-19 and his decision to cut aid to the poor as unemployment and inflation soared. But his stimulus spending, along with economic growth spurred by a record harvest and high commodity prices, could translate into last-minute support. Prices fell 0.7% in July after months of rising inflation.august International Monetary Fund added to gross domestic product Growth for the year rose to 1.7 percent from 0.8 percent in April.

Polls are expected to tighten as candidates begin running heavy ads and social media campaigns on Brazilian television. During the campaign, Lula played up the good things about his time in office. “I like to talk about the past, because it was much better than the present,” Lula told a room of businessmen on Aug. 9, describing his presidency as “a state of collective joy, because this The country is developing.” Mr Bolsonaro, by contrast, wanted to remind voters of events from 2014 to 2016, when Lula’s Workers’ Party was shaken by corruption scandals and a recession. One of the things Mr Bolsonaro is likely to bring up often in the coming weeks is Lula’s jail term for corruption, which was later dropped by the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the president has tried to exploit the fact that almost as many voters as those led by Mr Bolsonaro say they fear another Lula government. “Every morning I pray that Brazil never has to go through the horrors of communism,” he told the rapt crowd at the March for Jesus march in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 13. His evangelical wife, Michelle, danced enthusiastically to gospel music. “I pray that all of you will make the right decisions.” Mr Bolsonaro’s advantage among evangelicals, who make up nearly a third of Brazilians, has increased from 3 percentage points to 17 in three months percentage points; 49% said they intended to vote for him, while 32% would vote for Lula.

Mr Bolsonaro also maintains his lead among Brazil’s rich. Lula has tried to calm tensions by toning down his leftist rhetoric and recruiting center-right former São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate. But many have been put off by his plans, such as taxing wealth and renegotiating a business-friendly labor reform.

Even so, time is running out for Bolsonaro to catch up. In 2018, an unprecedented number of voters were undecided months before an election; 13 percent were still undecided three days before voting. But the number of undecided voters this year is at an all-time low, according to a poll aggregator run by news site Jota. Since the restoration of democracy in Brazil in 1985, the candidate leading the two months before an election has consistently won.

Supporters of Mr Bolsonaro shrugged it off. Faced with unfavorable data from DataFolha, they released a video of the president’s crowded rally, labeling it “DataPovo,” or “Data for the People.” One administration official wrinkled his nose at the mention of poll numbers. “Our polls show something different,” he said. The comments were reminiscent of Donald Trump, who during his failed 2020 re-election campaign frequently denounced polls and then lied about vote fraud. Mr Bolsonaro has also hinted that he may not accept the outcome if he loses.

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