Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is not exactly known for mild rhetoric, but with Brazil deeply divided heading into elections, he is counting on a more moderate image and economic upturn to win, his communications minister says.
Bolsonaro is trailing his leftist nemesis, ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (2003-2010), ahead of the October 2 election, bruised by a weak economy, his controversial handling of Covid-19 and what critics call his extremism.
But his charismatic, cool-tempered communications chief, Fabio Faria, says he is confident a critical mass of Brazilians will ultimately pick Bolsonaro over four more years of the Workers' Party (PT), whose time in power crashed to an end in 2016 with a corruption scandal, recession and the impeachment of Lula's hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Surging onto the national scene in the wake of that triple crisis, Bolsonaro won the presidency in 2018 with broad support, taking 55 percent of the vote.
And though some of those voters are disillusioned today, Bolsonaro's camp is confident the incumbent will win them back with a softer tone and an improving economy, Faria told AFP in an interview at the presidential palace in Brasilia.
Known for downplaying Covid-19 as a "little flu," urging Brazilians to stop being "sissies" about the pandemic, and attacking institutions such as the Superior Electoral Tribunal, whose new chief he once called a "scumbag," Bolsonaro has been dialing his rhetoric down a notch, Faria said.
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"The president's more moderate tone speaks to voters who had turned against him because they felt the president's style could have been more moderate," said the telegenic 44-year-old, a businessman and ex-congressman brought in to give the administration a communications makeover in June 2020.
"A lot of people who voted for Bolsonaro (in 2018) and then left his camp are coming back because they're anti-PT voters. The PT left a huge stain of corruption in the past, and voters... are coming back because they see Brazil is polarized between Bolsonaro and Lula -- there's no third candidate."
As evidence of Bolsonaro's softer touch, he offered the incumbent's prime-time interview Monday on TV Globo, the biggest broadcaster in the country of 213 million people.
Despite being a fierce critic of Globo and the "fake news" media in general, Bolsonaro was less aggressive than usual during the interview.
But he drew criticism for casting doubt on whether he would accept the election result if he loses.
Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly attacked Brazil's election system as fraud-prone -- with little evidence -- said he would respect the outcome "as long as the elections are clean and transparent."
Riding an upturn?
Lula leads Bolsonaro by 47 percent to 32 percent, according to the latest poll from the Datafolha institute.
Ten other contenders are polling in single digits.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of valid votes in the first round, the election will go to a runoff on October 30.
Faria said Bolsonaro is betting an improving economy will boost him to victory.
Like many countries, Brazil is suffering from surging prices, fueled by the effects of the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The Latin American giant's annual inflation rate came in at 10.07 percent last month, far above the central bank's target of 3.5 percent.
But prices posted a record drop of 0.68 percent in July, thanks partly to government fuel tax cuts.
Bolsonaro has also passed a massive social spending program called Auxilio Brasil that recently began making welfare payments of around $110 a month to some 20 million families.
Critics blast the move as economic populism. Supporters say it is just plain popular.
"People are starting to realize Brazil is better off than other countries," said Faria.
"The economy is going to get Bolsonaro reelected."