The political firestorm ignited by a huge anticorruption investigation and the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff should have generated a new wave of Brazilian political leaders. But instead the two main contenders in this year’s presidential election — Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro, a veteran congressman in Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies — represent the past.
Mr. da Silva, who is running his campaign from his jail cell following a conviction on corruption charges, appeals to voters’ nostalgia for the bygone days of political civility and economic boom that are unlikely to return soon. The political landscape and Mr. da Silva’s own reputation are not what they once were.
Mr. Bolsonaro has surged in popularity with about 20 percent of voter support, according to the latest polls, a high percentage in a fractured race. A conservative populist, he has defended the deplorable military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985 and has justified the use of torture.
There is a diverse group of presidential contenders along the political spectrum between Mr. da Silva and Mr. Bolsonaro. Though they all have their shortcomings, they by and large share a respect for the country’s young democracy. Mr. Bolsonaro, however, has glorified Brazil’s sinister authoritarian past. He is tempting Brazilians to return to a dark chapter in their history.
Whether or not Mr. Bolsonaro is elected president, the fact that he is dominating the race is a huge step backward for Brazil. During any given election season, people tend to say that they will vote for the “lesser evil,” but this time around the stakes are higher, given that one of the contenders has engineered his campaign on antidemocratic ideas.
In 1997, when the left-wing Senator Eduardo Suplicy was attacked by a dog, Mr. Bolsonaro suggested that the dog receive a medal. In 1999, during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, he said that the dictatorship should have “executed at least 30,000” people, “starting with the president.”
He has also said that he would rather his son die than be homosexual. And in front of television cameras, he told a congresswoman that he would not rape her because she was ugly.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s list of sexist and racist remarks goes on, but his most memorable moment may have been during the vote to impeach Ms. Rousseff, when he dedicated his vote, in favor of impeachment, to the head of the dictatorship’s torture center. Long before she was president of Brazil, Ms. Rousseff had been a guerrilla fighter and was tortured by the dictatorship.
In November 2017, I accompanied Mr. Bolsonaro to a military-cadet graduation. Seeing him in action reminded me of the magic Mr. da Silva once had, with an important difference.
On the day he left office in January 2011, Mr. da Silva, in typical fashion, threw himself into the arms of a jubilant crowd as it cheered him on. And when Mr. da Silva surrendered to federal police in April to begin his prison sentence for corruption, the scene was no different: There was Lula, the man of the people, amid a sea of anxious hands hoping for the chance to touch him. This hands-on style of campaigning has been a leitmotif for Lula, as he’s known in Brazil, ever since his days as a union leader in the 1970s.
During the graduation ceremony, Mr. Bolsonaro also waded into the crowd of cadets and their families. The echo of Lula’s rallies reminded me that Mr. Bolsonaro has become the politician of the moment, navigating Brazil’s changed political landscape better than anyone. But Mr. Bolsonaro didn’t quite have the Lula touch: The people wanted selfies; they weren’t reaching for hugs.
Mr. Bolsonaro has positioned himself as an anti-politician, even though he was a congressman for 27 years. He has managed to project an image as both a conservative leader who wants to bring back “family values” and a refreshing figure who is radically opposed to all that is politically correct (60 percent of his followers are young people).
He emerged as a front-runner because a significant number of Brazilians — tired of violence, of the chaos of corrupt politics and of the inroads made by the progressive left — support his hard-line conservatism and maverick stances. He has an appealing formula for a troubled country: simple solutions to complex problems.
Yet he’s full of contradictions. He calls himself the only honest presidential candidate, but recent media reports suggest that he illegally used congressional funds for personal gain. He claims to be the country’s best candidate to stabilize the market, but his track record is that of a statist. And while he is a right-wing politician, he is also known for having celebrated the election of the leftist Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
None of these discrepancies seem to bother his followers, who support him for the same reasons his opponents repudiate him. A recent poll showed that Mr. Bolsonaro’s followers — who call him “the myth” — take him seriously, but not that seriously. They see him as someone who represents the unconventional, not as a politician with a hateful agenda.
Like President Trump and other populists today, he has a formula for success based on harassing his adversaries. His incendiary language has left a mark on his followers: Many have said they will claim electoral fraud if he doesn’t win the election. He creates chaos to present himself as its solution.
In response to the problem of overcrowded prisons and escalating urban violence, he proposes arming the population to kill criminals. He has insinuated that whoever disagrees with him must be a criminal, too. His war of sound bites has distorted every attempt to engage in reasonable debate.
Despite his disturbing declarations, his inefficiency in Congress and his failure to present an economic program, Mr. Bolsonaro is gaining in popularity. But what Brazil needs right now is to strengthen its democracy, not take a step backward. He is a symptom of the widespread discontent in Brazil — he is certainly not a solution.
Ms. Carol Pires is a political reporter and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times en Español.