Bolsonaro and Lula battle it out in Brazil’s swing state

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In a residential alley where telenovela soap operas vie for attention with barking dogs, Vitoria Carolina has a disheartening message for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his re-election campaign.

The unemployed 23-year-old welcomes a recent increase in social benefits for the country’s poorest, a crucial demographic target for the far-right populist. But she is adamant the extra income won’t influence her at the polls in October.

“It’s just a strategy to win votes. It won’t influence mine,” she said from the outskirts of Belo Horizonte, the capital of southeastern Minas Gerais state. Like many other residents of the deprived community of Granja de Freitas, she remains loyal to Bolsonaro’s leftist rival, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president whose party built the social housing in which she lives.

As Latin America’s biggest democracy prepares for the most heated contest since the end of its military dictatorship nearly four decades ago, the two main contenders are trying to make inroads in Brazil’s flagship state. Home to the second-largest voter population in the country – 16 million, or roughly one in 10 Brazilian electorates – Minas Gerais has been carried by all elected candidates since direct presidential elections were reinstated in 1989.

In a campaign where the economy and tight living standards are at the forefront of the debate, Minas Gerais and its neighboring states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro will be “the key battleground”, according to Mauricio Moura, director general of the polling company Ideia Big Data.

“Swing voters – people who could vote for either side and are furthest outside the bubbles of both candidates – are highly concentrated [in the three states]“, Moura added.

Lula, the election favorite according to the polls, has chosen Belo Horizonte to host his first official rally this month. Days earlier, Bolsonaro launched his campaign in Juiz de Fora, another town in Minas Gerais, where four years ago he was stabbed and nearly killed while on the stump.

Lula supporters gather in Belo Horizonte earlier this month for the former president’s first official campaign rally © Ivan Abreu/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

In 2018, citizens tired of corruption scandals and political and economic crises backed the former army captain’s nationalist anti-corruption and slim government platform, while his support for conservative values ​​appealed to many. many evangelical Christians.

But the 67-year-old’s ratings have suffered from the economic fallout from Covid-19 and dissatisfaction with his handling of the pandemic. At the national level, Lula has 47% of voting intentions in the first round against 32% for Bolsonaro, according to the latest Datafolha poll. It also gave the left a lead in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the country’s most populous and wealthy states.

With its diverse social and economic makeup, Minas Gerais holds clues as to whether Bolsonaro can continue to close the gap with his 76-year-old rival, who served two terms as president between 2003 and 2010. Bigger than mainland France. , the landlocked state has a strong agro-industrial sector, rich mineral deposits and a steel industry. But it is also marked by impoverishment, especially in its northern region.

Known as Mineiros, residents of the state tend to be conservative and moderate in their political outlook, according to Paulo Paiva, an economist at the Fundação Dom Cabral business school in Belo Horizonte. Many low-income voters from the urban peripheries, traditionally supportive of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT), backed Bolsonaro in 2018.

“The dispute will be in the metro area within the lower middle class,” he said, adding that he believed wealthier voters would “give Bolsonaro more votes than he is saying. polls”. Nearly two-thirds of Belo Horizonte voters backed Bolsonaro in 2018, higher than the national rate of 55%.

In the city’s downtown, taxi driver Vinicios Costa da Silva hailed the social advances made during Lula’s first term. But he became disillusioned with the corruption scandals that have marred the PT.

“Bolsonaro talks a lot and doesn’t think about what he’s saying,” added Costa da Silva, a cross hanging from the rear-view mirror of his taxi. “On the other hand, what I consider positive is his honesty.”

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Confectionery entrepreneur Geraldo Miagella, 45, from Abaeté, a town about 200 km northwest of Belo Horizonte, also said he had voted for Lula in the past but would support again Bolsonaro because he was “doing a good job”.

“It has reduced corruption a lot,” he added. “I think with four more years he will manage to achieve his goals.”

The president’s aggressive stances, which include questioning the integrity of the country’s e-voting system, are too much for some Mineiros. In the upmarket neighborhood of Belvedere in Belo Horizonte, Carla Caricatti accused Bolsonaro of polarizing Brazil.

“Savior of the country? He didn’t save anyone,” said the 42-year-old lawyer who is considering voting for Lula: “He’s not perfect, but we have no other option.”

Map of Brazil focusing on Minas Gerais

For many voters, economic issues will matter more than the contrasting worldviews of Bolsonaro and Lula, analysts say.

“Lula has a positive factor: the memory of people who come out of poverty,” said Reginaldo Lopes, a PT federal deputy who coordinates Lula’s campaign in Minas Gerais.

Although unemployment and inflation are down, Carlos Viana, a senator running for governor from Minas with Bolsonaro’s party, admitted it was “a big challenge” to promote the improving outlook because many low-income families are not yet feeling the benefits.

He hopes that the reluctance of some Mineiros disclosing his political views will work to Bolsonaro’s advantage. “The Brazilian voter will only decide 15 days before the election,” he added. “It’s even stronger in Minas”.

Back in Granja de Freitas, 27-year-old Lucas Henrique Crepalde de Sousa, who repairs computers and works as a driver for a carpooling app on weekends, is a rare voice in favor of the president, calling him a “good person”. . ” whose policies have improved Brazil.

“I will vote for Bolsonaro,” he said. “But I won’t tell anyone here.”

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