BRASILIA, Brazil -- If Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is to have any hope of securing a second term, he needs more female support – and fast. Yet a man famed for macho bravado hasn’t shown any concerted strategy to do so.
With the election just three months off, some polls show only one in five women will vote for the tough-talking, pro-gun, motorcycle-riding former Army captain. If that holds true Oct. 2, Bolsonaro could lose outright to his nemesis, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, without need for a runoff. Almost half of Brazilian women say they will vote for the president’s opponent.
More than half of women polled say they would never vote for the far-right leader, regardless of social class, which has been a traditional indicator for voting preferences.
Polling expert Antonio Lavareda said Bolsonaro has no chance of winning unless he can win over more women. “There is huge rejection among them. Even among those who are yet to make their choice, he is less likely to be their pick,” he said on a phone interview.
It’s a far cry from 2018. Days before the one-time fringe lawmaker's victory four years ago, polls showed women roughly evenly split between Bolsonaro and his leftist adversary, a former mayor of Sao Paulo. That despite Bolsonaro's quip that he had fathered a daughter in a moment of weakness and his remark to a fellow lawmaker she was too ugly to be raped. Many women, especially those from higher social classes, backed his campaign.
Since then, Bolsonaro has hemorrhaged female support. That’s in part due to his handling of the pandemic and insistence upon sowing doubt about the efficacy of vaccines, even stringently opposing their use among children, said Esther Solano, a sociologist at the Federal University of Sao Paulo. The president remains unvaccinated against COVID-19 and a country with a proud tradition of successful vaccine campaigns saw the world’s second-highest COVID-19 death toll.
“Women are always impacted by idea of care, because it is the woman who gives care. Bolsonaro not taking care of people during the pandemic had a much more negative impact among the female population,” said Solano, who has conducted polling of potential Bolsonaro voters.
More generally, she said, four years of Bolsonaro’s “aggressive tone” have diminished his support.
“He shows a kind of masculinity that’s very toxic, very strong, very violent. Just as there are men who have been fascinated by this sort of masculinity, of the aggressive man who speaks in a way that’s politically incorrect, who is intolerant, who demonstrates a certain strength, many women feel assaulted by this,” she added.
Bolsonaro also has received blame for the fastest inflation in almost two decades, just like other incumbents across the globe.
Geisa Rodrigues dos Santos lives in a low-income community of Rio de Janeiro and depends heavily on social programs to feed her three kids. Brazil’s generous pandemic welfare program was slashed, and the house cleaner now finds herself longing for da Silva’s administration, which produced an emergent middle class from 2003 to 2010. She didn’t vote in 2018, but now intends to vote for da Silva, known universally in Brazil as Lula.
“Back then in the pandemic the handouts worked. They saved a lot of mothers,” said dos Santos, 35. “Now, I spend these 400 reais ($77) at the supermarket and inflation eats a large part of it. During the Lula days, we ate.”
There is recognition within Bolsonaro’s camp of his disadvantage among women, as well as hope he can win over many of the roughly one-third of women who, according to polls, remain undecided. What doesn’t exist is agreement on how to adjust course.
Analysts have speculated the Bolsonaro campaign could deploy his wife Michelle, 40, in public appearances and television spots. A nearly dressed evangelical Christian, she speaks fluent sign language and personifies the caregiving housewife who can smooth Bolsonaro’s rough edges and appeal to potential female voters, said Solano.
The first lady had been set to record TV spots earlier this month, but it didn't happen, according to two of Bolsonaro’s ministers and two senators who are close advisers to the president. They told The Associated Press the spots were scrapped because the president's lawmaker sons are divided over the tack he should take: double down on his 2018 strategy of inflammatory language or tone down his brashness as a means of outreach. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly about campaign strategy.
Allies also have urged Bolsonaro to choose a female running mate, such as Tereza Cristina, his former agriculture minister, according to the same four officials. Instead, he has said he will choose a fellow military man, Gen. Walter Braga Netto, an adviser to the president. He could still change his mind before an August deadline, though that appears increasingly unlikely, his allies told the AP.
Cristina was one of just three female Cabinet ministers during Bolsonaro’s first three years in office, compared to more than 20 men. After she and other ministers stepped down this year so they can run for other offices, Bolsonaro’s picks for replacements left only one woman in the Cabinet.
Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he doesn’t believe polls, arguing his voters don't respond to the surveys.
His direct attempts to reach out to female voters have been halting. He said on International Women’s Day in March that women “are basically integrated to society” and on April 12 said his administration has done 63 things for them, without specifying what they were. The presidential palace didn't reply to repeated AP emails asking for details of those actions.
Meantime, some women who were once potential Bolsonaro voters are now actively working to unseat him.
Rosângela Lyra, a former Christian Dior executive in Brazil, shocked friends when she started rallying support for da Silva after earlier backing the prosecutors whose corruption investigations had put him in prison. Brazil’s top court ruled last year that the judge had been biased, and annulled da Silva’s convictions.
“The main reason for my campaign is President Jair Bolsonaro. He shouldn’t continue,” Lyra told the AP in the lobby of her apartment in a posh district of Sao Paulo. She leads Politica Viva, an activist group with nearly 3,000 members, most of them women. While she said she didn’t vote for Bolsonaro in 2018, she had believed he could grow in office.
“I hoped he would think better, have some access to other information, become more human. But that didn’t happen,” Lyra said. “People can see now he is incompetent and inhumane. His management of the pandemic, the corruption in his administration, the vigilantism he supports. We can’t keep t his institutional risk for another four years and become a right-wing dictatorship.”
Lavareda said few things have hurt Bolsonaro among women more than his crusade to loosen gun restrictions. When he campaigned in 2018, widespread access to firearms for civilians was part of his pitch to help rein in homicides that reached a 10-year-high the year before.
Claudianne Silva, a cashier at a Sao Paulo supermarket, had just lost a nephew to gun violence, believed the new president should be hard on crime and corruption.
This time around, though, she feels Bolsonaro has failed to deliver and will cast her ballot for da Silva.
“I voted for Bolsonaro because I was angry with everyone, but now I'm so angry with him that I'll vote for the person he hates the most,” said Silva, 47. “Not that I think Lula will do much better. Times are different now. But I want Bolsonaro out.”
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.