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Bolsonaro turns to his wife to attract voters

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The first lady was reluctant, she confessed to us. But with the president’s waning popularity, campaign strategists would pressure her, as would her children.

In fact, the broader Bolsonaro team had already mentioned it to him. Having kept a low profile for much of the term, the president’s third wife is now everywhere from campaign speeches to the Mother’s Day video in which she praised government policies, along with the defense minister. Woman, Family and Human Rights, an undisguised effort to connect with a hard-to-please electorate.

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Nobody seemed to care that by turning to his wife and (currently) the only female cabinet minister to connect with 53% of the electorate, the president also offered a reminder of just how peripheral women remain in Brazilian politics, at least until now. Make your presence convenient.

Relatively young, 40 years old compared to 67 for the president, Michelle Bolsonaro is more pleasing to the eye, traditional and evangelical. Ignoring her financial missteps and her misogynistic, homophobic and racist comments, she smooths over her husband’s rough edges and keeps the conversation going on apolitical topics like family and religion.

Last month, at the launch of Bolsonaro’s re-election campaign in Rio de Janeiro, he showed what he could do. Encouraged to address the crowd, between religious invocations, she gave voters a glimpse of life in Bolsonaro’s home. He sleeps badly, he told them, worried about the country. As he leaves, she prays in her chair for courage and strength for the president. He is she, she confided to the audience dressed in a flag-green suit, “a chosen one of God.” Thunderous applause follows.

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The problem it is supposed to solve is obvious. With just over a month to go before the first round of voting scheduled for early October, Bolsonaro still trails former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, particularly among younger women, who reject him significantly. Perhaps not a huge surprise for a candidate who once told a rival lawmaker that she was too ugly to be raped.

He also needs to improve his luck with evangelical voters and here, again, Michelle is key. Evangelicals make up about a third of the Brazilian population, and their community leaders have made the most of their political influence. Lacking an established political support base, Bolsonaro has long courted more conservative elements, including influential figures like televangelist Silas Malafaia.

Although nominally Catholic, the president was baptized in the Jordan River. He appointed one pastor to serve as education minister (until corruption charges surfaced) and another to the Supreme Court. Abortion, gender identity and homeschooling have been included in political discourse, divisive issues that say more about the president’s efforts to cast himself as a champion of traditional values ​​than of voter concerns.

In Rio, at a “March for Jesus” event attended with her husband, the first lady of this secular state wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the Brazilian flag and the words “Pray for Brazil.” Meanwhile, Bolsonaro activists spread false rumors about Lula’s intention to close churches.

It seems to be working. The gap with Lula is narrowing. From 25 percentage points in May, according to figures from a Datafolha survey on the intention to vote in a second round between the two main candidates, the difference was reduced last week to 17 percentage points.

The number of people who say they would “in no way” vote for Bolsonaro has dropped from 54% to 51%, while rejection of Lula has increased. Polls suggest the president is widening his advantage among evangelical voters, the middle class, and narrowing his disadvantage among women.

Okay, it’s not all because of Michelle. On the one hand, the more generous social provisions that Bolsonaro has introduced to protect the poorest families from inflation attract female-headed households that are not only growing as a share of the total, but are experiencing food insecurity more often.

As Jeff Garmany, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Melbourne, points out, Bolsonaro was also doing so poorly in the polls among women that it would have been difficult for him to get any worse, and while the first lady is doing well with existing supporters, it is difficult to know if it achieves changes of opinion.

Creomar de Souza, founder of Dharma Political Risk and Strategy, points out that this is one of the biggest problems of the campaign: while it can speak to the base, it is less clear that it reaches those outside the bubble that support Bolsonaro.

Room for improvement

When asked about their assessment of the Bolsonaro government, wealthier voters and evangelicals still give by far the most generous verdicts.

Obviously, the president will be happy with any progress. But for Brazil, it is much less clear that this is good news. In his desperation to attract evangelical voters, Bolsonaro — whose slogan is “Brazil above everything, God above everything” — ignores the official separation of church and state, widening divisions and exposing intolerance.

Earlier this month, the first lady shared a video of Lula in the northern state of Bahia participating in a cleansing ritual particular to Afro-Brazilian religions, with the message of outrage: “We can do this, but let me talk about God no.”

And for women? The strategy has even more worrying implications. Despite the prominence of Michelle Bolsonaro, they remain peripheral and almost unrepresented in this race, as is their situation in Brazilian politics in general: subject to harassment on social networks and the object of political violence.

The president could have addressed his unattractiveness among women by choosing a running mate, such as renowned former agriculture minister Tereza Cristina. Instead, he opted for a military man and has allowed a strategy that relies on his wife to fill the void. (Lula is also introducing his third wife, the admittedly less traditional sociologist and activist Rosangela da Silva, known as Janja.)

Meanwhile, Simone Tebet, the most credible candidate in this clash of the titans presidential race, only has around 2% of voting intentions in the polls. People of color fare even worse.

Whatever happens in October, it seems likely that Brazil will come out more divided and polarized. Fixing that will require finding more creative, if not radical, solutions.

In Garanhuns, Lula’s hometown in northeastern Brazil, I met three women a few months ago who were trying to do just that by running as a trio for a single seat on the local council to get around family and work constraints. They called themselves Fany das Manas, a play on words that includes the name of one of the three, the lawyer Fany Bernal, and the informal word for sister.

They encountered considerable resistance and prejudice, even within their chosen party, Lula’s PT. “They only wanted one of us,” explains Bernal. They got three anyway.

Source: Gestion

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