Jair Bolsonaro’s revitalised bid for a second term as Brazil president has placed heavy emphasis on the conservative ideals of God and family.
These are values that resonate in Saltinho — a small town in the agricultural interior of Brazil’s wealthiest and most populous state São Paulo — where three-quarters of the population of about 10,000 backed the far-right president in last weekend’s first-round presidential vote.
The strong showing in Saltinho, which has benefited from an agribusiness boom cheered on by Bolsonaro, was the highest percentage among municipalities in the state and one of the highest across the whole of Brazil.
“Why mess with a winning team? The economy has improved and so has business and employment,” said Julio Cesar Maistro, who runs a bakery on the main street of the tidy, low-rise municipality. “The president’s values resonate here. There are many Christians.”
Bolsonaro’s poll-defying performance in São Paulo state, which stretches more than 650km inland from Brazil’s Atlantic coast, has given him a fighting chance of retaining the presidency — and dealt a grievous blow to the hopes of his left-winger election rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
While the pollsters had predicted that Lula would win 48 per cent of the vote in the state of 46mn people and Bolsonaro 39 per cent, the reality was more or less inverted.
Nationwide, Lula won Sunday’s vote by 5 percentage points, a much narrower margin than expected, and the pair will face-off again for what is expected to be a tight runoff at the end of the month. Yet Bolsonaro’s dominance of São Paulo complicates any potential path Lula has to victory.
“São Paulo went for Bolsonaro big time,” said Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
The results reflect broader changes happening across Latin America’s largest nation as well as political developments specific to São Paulo, including the implosion of the centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) that for decades had dominated the state.
Brazil’s interior has become increasingly wealthy and politically powerful over the past two decades thanks to the expansion of agribusiness. In these regions, Lula’s focus on helping the urban poor has increasingly less resonance.
“Lula has a strong history in the city of São Paulo and in the metropolitan region where we have a lot of inequality,” said Tathiana Chicarino, a political scientist at the São Paulo School of Sociology and Politics. “[But] in the countryside, you have more favourable conditions, compared with those who live in the urban peripheries.”
Bruno Carazzo, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation, said the trend seen in São Paulo state was evident all the way from Rio Grande do Sul in the south to the fringes of the Amazon.
“It’s a large region where people tend to be more conservative as well as more opposed to state interventionism,” he said. Many in the interior were also still furious with Lula’s Workers’ party (PT) because of the corruption scandals that occurred while it was in government between 2003 and 2016, he added.
In Saltinho, where the economy is fuelled by vast sugarcane production, the combination of an improving agriculture-based economy and the legacy of PT corruption are more than enough reasons to vote for Bolsonaro.
“We would never elect an ex-convict,” said Ariele Jacinto, 27, who works in a clothes shop in the town, referring to the two years that Lula spent in prison for corruption before his convictions were annulled by the supreme court.
“Bolsonaro has been one hell of a president,” she added.
Many citizens in the town echo Bolsonaro’s talking points that the election has been rigged against him and that Brazil “would become like Venezuela” if Lula wins.
“The interior of São Paulo is more conservative. It maintains traditions. People are religious and they care about the family. It is an economic and cultural conservatism,” said Helinho Bernardino, Saltinho’s mayor.
Bolsonaro’s dominance of São Paulo has not been completely his doing. He has been aided by the collapse of the PSDB.
On Sunday, the centre-right party lost the governorship for the first time in 28 years and the party did not field its own presidential candidate. In Congress, it lost nine seats in the lower House and two seats in the Senate.
Analysts trace the party’s disintegration to the 2018 election when it allied with Bolsonaro and the far-right under governor-elect João Doria. During the pandemic, the two men openly split but the damage had already been done to the PSDB.
“This is a classic story of extreme politics hollowing out the centre. When the PSDB abandoned its social democratic credentials and made alliance with the extreme right, it lost its identity,” said Spektor.
Ahead of the October 30 runoff vote, Lula has been left scrambling to claw back votes in the state, with his Workers’ party mobilising to get out the vote in poorer communities in urban areas.
Geraldo Alckmin, a conservative former PSDB state governor who is Lula’s running mate, has also been deployed to make overtures to the interior.
Lula’s campaign is focused on a dual-pronged message of protecting democracy and reducing poverty. In the countryside, however, this message appears increasingly lost.
“We’ll continue to dialogue with the population to show we have the best candidates for São Paulo and Brazil,” said Edinho Silva, a rare PT mayor in the interior.
“Our proposal is for a fairer society that generates opportunities for all.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza in São Paulo