IN THE arrivals hall of Belém’s airport the excitement is palpable. Hundreds of supporters of Jair Bolsonaro, a seven-term congressman and would-be president, gather under the steady gaze of a squad of policemen. Some hold banners with Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”. A few wear “Godfather” T-shirts, with his face in place of Marlon Brando’s. When the candidate finally emerges through sliding doors the crowd surges forward, straining for a glimpse. While bodyguards forge through the scrum, the crowd hoists Mr Bolsonaro aloft as if he were a homecoming hero.
The visit to Belém, the sweltering capital of the Amazonian state of Pará, is an early stop in Mr Bolsonaro’s campaign to win the presidential election due in October 2018. A religious nationalist and former army captain, he is anti-gay, pro-gun, and an apologist for dictators who tortured and killed Brazilians between 1964 and 1985. He rails against the political elite, whose venality has been exposed by the three-year Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation.
His message resonates. If the election were held today, an eighth of Brazilians would vote for Mr Bolsonaro, according to Ibope, a pollster. In a crowded field, that would put him second to the former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has the backing of a third of the electorate. The two would face each other in a run-off.
Polls this early are unreliable and Mr Bolsonaro’s eighth of the electorate is hardly a groundswell. His appeal may well fade as the economy recovers from a recession and voters pay more attention to the election. But his second-place status says much about the turbulent mood among Brazilians. A choice between him and Lula, who has been convicted by a lower court of corruption, would be a grim one indeed. Lula is appealing against the verdict.
Telling it like it isn’t
Mr Bolsonaro, who represents Rio de Janeiro in congress, hopes to be a Brazilian Donald Trump. His rhetoric is even more indecorous. In 2016 Mr Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to impeach Dilma Rousseff, then Brazil’s president, to the dictatorship’s chief torturer, Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra. (Ms Rousseff herself, once a member of an urban guerrilla group, had been tortured by the military regime.) In 2014 he told a congresswoman he wouldn’t rape her “because you don’t deserve it”.
Mr Bolsonaro, whose middle name is Messias (Messiah), talks little about what he would do as president, apart from restoring law and order. He admitted in a recent interview with Bloomberg to a “superficial understanding” of economics. He holds some mainstream views, such as favouring gradual reform of the ruinously expensive pension system. Less conventional is his wish to loosen gun-control laws, restrict Chinese investment in Brazil and cosy up to Mr Trump. He opposes gay marriage (legal since 2013) and adoption by gay parents. “His political instincts are to radicalise rather than moderate,” says Paulo Sotero of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington.
Public opinion is becoming more militant, too. The influence of social conservatism appears to be growing. In September Santander, a bank, abruptly closed an exhibition of “queer art” in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, which included a painting that showed someone having sex with an animal. Campaigners said it promoted blasphemy and bestiality. Around a thousand people joined a “Christian march for Brazil” on October 16th in São Paulo. Some held banners that called for the military to take over the country. Mr Bolsonaro, who was baptised in the Jordan river last year, will attract support from evangelicals. They make up a fifth of the population, according to the census taken in 2010; three decades before, they were one in 15.
Anger about the economy, crime and corruption will add to Mr Bolsonaro’s support. Despite a recent pickup in economic growth, the unemployment rate is still high at 12.4% and poverty is increasing. The murder rate is rising. Michel Temer, the current president, survives in office only because congress has twice rejected appeals by prosecutors to put him on trial for corruption. His approval rating is a risible 3%. Just 13% of Brazilians think democracy works well; a third would back another coup. Nearly 60% want a president from outside one of the three biggest parties.
Mr Bolsonaro has belonged to seven during his 26-year congressional career. He is now a member of the Christian Social Party, which has just 11 of the 513 seats in the lower house. He pays a price: public money for campaigns and time on television and radio are distributed according to parties’ share of seats in congress. But money has become less important since recent reforms capped campaign spending and prohibited corporate donations. Mr Bolsonaro boasts that he will spend just 1m reais ($310,000) on his campaign (in 2014 Ms Rousseff spent 300 times as much).
He is betting on social media. He has 4.8m followers on Facebook, more than any other Brazilian politician, and posts several videos a day, many of which are viewed by more than 1m people. His campaign is well organised. In Belém it deployed women to deal with any female protesters who might show up; sending men to confront them might have produced ugly press coverage.
“Bolsonaro is the only honest candidate we have,” explains Bárbara Lima, a 27-year-old volunteer. “There is no proof that he is racist or homophobic.” Older supporters remember the military dictatorship fondly. “My childhood was one of the happiest times of my life. I had liberty, security and health,” recalls Tom Meneses. “Then the socialists came to power.”
Despite fury and nostalgia, the odds are against Mr Bolsonaro becoming president. A third of Brazilians rule out voting for him in the first round. As the economy improves, fewer may gamble on a radical presidency. The two-round electoral system makes it hard for extremists to win; in a run-off, the moderate majority rallies to the more mainstream contender.
The only candidate with higher rejection rates than Mr Bolsonaro is Lula, but he may be not be able to run if a higher court upholds his conviction. His disqualification would make things still more difficult for the Rio radical. Even so, Mr Bolsonaro’s strong early showing is a warning sign. Centrists must prove that they are better equipped than extremists to repair the damage politicians have done.