Paulo Haddad (left) of the left-wing nationalist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and Jair Bolsonaro (right) of the right-wing Partido Social Liberal (PSL)

Paulo Haddad (left) of the left-wing nationalist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and Jair Bolsonaro (right) of the right-wing Partido Social Liberal (PSL)

After months of Brazil’s inconclusive election opinion polls, two candidates — the Partido Social Liberal’s (PSL) right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro; and Paulo Haddad of the left-wing nationalist and corruption-tainted Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) — who are also the two most populist, politically strident and directly antagonistic candidates, suddenly have a clear and possibly insurmountable advantage over their 11 rivals.

Since the beginning of September, the transformation of Brazil’s most competitive and divisive election race in a generation has been dramatic. At the beginning of the month Haddad wasn’t even his party’s choice for president and soundings of his support were in the low single digits. He’s now in second place with the backing of more than 20% of Brazilians. Meanwhile, on 7 September, Bolsonaro, who has since consolidated his opinion poll lead, was physically forced from the race after being stabbed in the stomach in front of thousands of supporters at a rally. If the most respected recent national polls are correct, an absent front runner and last-minute substitute — each representing the extremes of Brazilian politics — are likely to capture the largest share of votes when nearly the 150 million Brazilians, who are over 18 and are legally required to vote, go to the polls on 7 October.

Neither Bolsonaro or Haddad have, or is expected to, garner enough additional support to win the presidency because a candidate must get more than 50% of valid votes. The first round victor and runner will start a head-to-head campaign for the 28 October run off to become Brazil’s next leader on 1 January.

Until recently it was a contest between a radical populist right-wing social conservative, and a field of three more centrist candidates who had a fair chance to beat him in a second-round vote. Now, however, it is a contest between Bolsonaro and a strident nationalist interventionist left that stands for nearly everything that he and his angry supporters are running against. Haddad and his supporters share a similar loathing for the Bolsonaro camp. As things stand, the more moderate bulk of the electorate now faces a choice between the very extremes that they most fear. With all candidates’ disapproval ratings far higher than their levels of support — and those of the front runners rising in step with their approval ratings — the next government will almost certainly find it very difficult to building an effective Congressional coalition to rule with little to unite its opponents seeking to moderate politically unpopular legislation.

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