Evangelical support gives Brazil's Bolsonaro votes in unlikely places

Northeast Brazil has traditionally been the stronghold of the country's Workers Party. But the far right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro is making inroads, overturning political conventions.  

Nacho Doce/Reuters
Pastor Crenilton Ferreira, his wife Claudia Adriana, and their children Izabelli and Isaac in front of their house in Palmeira Dos Reis, Maranhao state, Brazil, on Oct. 14, 2018. The family plans to vote for far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil's presidential election.

The home of Crenilton Santos Ferreira and his wife, Claudia Adriana, sits at the end of a sandy path in the scorched northeast Brazilian state of Maranhao, the poorest in the nation.

Maranhenses, as locals are known, cast almost 80 percent of their ballots for the leftist Workers Party (PT) in Brazil's presidential election in 2014. This month, they re-elected their governor, a member of the Brazilian Communist Party, with almost 60 percent of the vote.

As Brazil's presidential election nears an Oct. 28 run-off, however, Mr. Ferreira plans to vote for Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressional firebrand from the distant city of Rio de Janeiro.

Despite years of offensive comments about women and blacks, the former Army captain is on the verge of winning the presidency with his law-and-order rhetoric, conservative social views, and vows to fight political corruption.

"My vote is for Bolsonaro because he defends the value of family, Christian values," said Ferreira, a pastor in the outback town of Barreirinhas. "He doesn't defend a party, he defends a nation: Brazil."

Ferreira's enthusiasm for Mr. Bolsonaro, in this corner of Brazil that lacks televisions and cellular signals, is a testament to the politician's appeal to a range of voters, even in places where conservative candidates have been weak or non-existent.

With only a tiny party behind him and almost no TV advertising until this month, Bolsonaro is on track for a resounding victory, even as his chances were dismissed by many political analysts just months ago.

Ferreira's advocacy for Bolsonaro – in his parish and around the town – highlights one of the candidate's hidden strengths: the evangelical establishment has provided a grass-roots army of volunteers for the lawmaker's threadbare campaign.

Left still a stronghold in northeast Brazil

In Maranhao, evangelical pastors and their parishes have provided an opening for Bolsonaro in otherwise-unfertile ground.

While wide swathes of Brazil's wealthy south and southeast are expected to vote for the congressman, much of the country's hardscrabble north and northeast is still likely to break hard for the Workers Party, or PT.

That loyalty to the leftists springs from deep gratitude for the generous social welfare programs the PT expanded, especially during the 2003-2011 presidency of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Asked about the 12-year prison sentence Mr. da Silva is serving for corruption, most in the region were unfazed. Indeed, many weren't even familiar with the name of Fernando Haddad, da Silva's last-minute stand-in and a former Sao Paulo mayor, though they planned to vote for him.

"I'll probably vote for Papa Lula, for his candidate. The boss has always helped us," said Maria da Luz, a mother of 10, when asked whom she would vote for.

Ms. Luz and her husband, Raimundo Domingo Ferreira Pires, live in Belagua, one of the poorest towns in Brazil, according to government statistics.

She receives about 500 reais ($135) a month from a welfare program known as Bolsa Familia, while Mr. Pires receives another 650 reais in pension benefits.

That money, Pires said, has helped the family buy clothing, pencils, and notebooks that their children need to attend school.

Even Ferreira, the Bolsonaro-supporting pastor, relies on the Bolsa Familia program to make ends meet. He gets 163 reais per month to support his two children, complementing his salary of 800 reais.

Yet, conversations with fellow church members helped turn him sharply against the PT, which upset many evangelicals by supporting gay rights and sex education in school.

Ferreira talks politics via satellite radio with Pedro Aldi Damasceno, a senior pastor in the state capital of Sao Luis, who does not shy away from the subject on the pulpit.

"We're Christians, we defend real Christianity with ardor and zeal," Mr. Damasceno told Reuters in an interview.

"There's no peace between us and Haddad. He's the enemy, the enemy of the believers."

This story was reported by Reuters.

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