BARRETOS – Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro traveled to Latin America’s biggest rodeo — a bubble of staunch support — to connect with voters from the countryside ahead of October’s vote.
On Friday evening, the far-right leader rode a horse while holding a cowboy hat in his outstretched arm and greeting supporters draped in Brazil flags, while his campaign jingle “The People's Captain” played. He joked with them and they prayed together for the future of the country. All major polls show Bolsonaro trailing well behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but one wouldn’t know it from the scene at the rodeo in the municipality of Barretos, in Sao Paulo state.
“This event is already part of our history. Moved by agribusiness, by the work of countryside men and women, Brazil is projecting itself onto the global stage,” Bolsonaro told the crowd, which chanted the word “legend” in reference to him. “Our motto is God, country, family and freedom. Yeee-hooo!”
The multi-day spectacle had tens of thousands of attendees who were predominately white and middle-class. Many came decked out in the national colors of green and canary yellow that Bolsonaro has transformed into symbols of support for his administration. The packed arena roared when Bolsonaro was introduced to the tune of DJ Snake’s and Lil Jon’s song “Turn Down for What,” which his supporters have used in hundreds of videos to portray him as defiant.
Outside, a vendor sold towels bearing the faces of Bolsonaro and da Silva of the leftist Workers’ Party, and displayed a board showing how many of each candidate had been purchased. Barely any featuring da Silva had sold, and attendees took it as a signal their candidate will win the vote. Elsewhere in Brazil, such towel sales scoreboards point in the opposite direction.
Despite da Silva’s lead in the polls, a dozen farmers, cattle ranchers and rodeo fans in Barretos told The Associated Press that Bolsonaro doesn’t need to reach out to many moderate voters, which da Silva is openly attempting to do -- most notably, with his selection of a center-right rival turned running mate.
“The last time the polls didn’t say Bolsonaro was going to win,'' said 57-year-old Gualter Silveira, who owns a small farm. ‘’This year it is going to be the same. I see him going everywhere. Lula doesn’t. How can Bolsonaro be behind?”
Wearing a Brazilian flag as a scarf, businessman Daniel Tales, 43, said he felt goosebumps in his mustache after seeing Bolsonaro in person. The proud cowboy from neighboring Minas Gerais state said he believes his candidate will need a run-off against da Silva to secure a second term.
“But he doesn’t need to change anything. He doesn’t need to do anything else or anything less,” Tales said. “He has a strong personality, he is the man of the moment, he came to make a revolution.”
Asked how Bolsonaro could bring undecided voters to his side, he replied: “He needs to be himself. That’s all.”
Four years ago, Bolsonaro won almost 74% of the vote in Barretos in the second round vote against Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party's candidate after da Silva was declared ineligible. The president receives a lot of love in the region for professing conservative values and defending farmers, and also because he created a National Rodeo Day in 2020 and loosened regulations for such events in Brazil. Friday wasn't his first time at the Barretos rodeo; he came in 2019 as president and three other times during his career as a lawmaker to help his son's bid for Congress.
This time, Bolsonaro brought along cabinet ministers, politicians running for office and some business leaders whose properties were searched by police earlier this week due to their alleged participation in a private chat group that included comments favoring a possible coup and military involvement in politics. One of them, Luciano Hang, wore his customary yellow shirt and green pants, and he did his best to rile up the the crowd.
Bolsonaro and his allies have routinely scoffed at the polls, sometimes saying the president will not just win the election, but do so in the first round without need for a run-off. They say a more accurate way to gauge the upcoming result is watching the turnout at Bolsonaro rallies.
Bolsonaro supporters who spoke to the AP said they are ready to heed his call and take to the streets for Independence Day on Sept. 7. Some politicians and analysts have expressed concern that it could turn violent.
“We'll see you out on Independence Day,” emcee Cuiabano Lima said as Bolsonaro left the rodeo arena. Lima also said da Silva is a thief who belongs in prison, and the crowd chanted in agreement.
Da Silva, who governed from 2003 to 2010 and is universally known as Lula, was barred from running in 2018 after being jailed due to convictions for corruption and money laundering, which the Supreme Court later annulled on the basis that the judge in the case had been biased. That cleared the way for him to run in 2022.
Silvana Cunha, 47, is concerned about the possibility da Silva could return to power. She works with cattle raisers and says Bolsonaro improved her life due to higher beef prices during his administration. Although she trusts he will win in October, she acknowledged the challenges he faces.
“It took time to organize everything as he wished,” said Cunha, a fervent Catholic who has attended the Barretos rodeo for years. “No matter who wins, it will be very difficult. We will need a strong hand. It is a massive task to put the country back on the track for growth after this pandemic. We need to be very careful. Either we will have a setback or an evolution.”