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Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro kicks off his reelection campaign


Now to Brazil, where the country's presidential campaign is intensifying.


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).


FADEL: That's the sound of President Jair Bolsonaro as he kicked off his drive for reelection yesterday. Bolsonaro is a far-right populist who likes to cast himself in the same mold as former President Donald Trump. Often outspoken, anti-establishment, he's often been dubbed the tropical Trump. But he's facing a stiff challenge in October's election from a former left-wing president. To tell us more, NPR's John Otis joins us from Rio de Janeiro. Hi, John.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Hi. Good to be here.

FADEL: So, John, you were at President Bolsonaro's campaign launch yesterday. What was it like?

OTIS: Well, it was held at a sports stadium right next to Rio's legendary Maracana soccer stadium. And like soccer fans, Bolsonaro's fans are really quite enthusiastic, as you heard in the clip. Many came dressed in blue and green, the blue and green colors of the Brazilian flag, which Bolsonaro has sort of appropriated as his campaign symbol. In fact, some actually were wrapped in Brazilian flags. And during his speech, Bolsonaro talked a lot about patriotism and religion and family values. And he also talked about his opposition to abortion, gay rights and how much he hates leftists. Let's take a listen.


BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).


OTIS: Now, Bolsonaro is saying here that his work as president has all been worthwhile because while he's been in office, he's managed to keep the communists from taking over Brazil. And, you know, he was sort of alluding to how left-wing leaders now rule much of Latin America. And Bolsonaro himself is facing a very tough challenge from the left. His main rival in the race is Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He's of the opposition, Workers' Party, and he's also a two-term former president.

FADEL: Tell us more about Lula. I mean, this is a man - he was in prison not so long ago.

OTIS: Yeah. That's right. Lula became a hero to many Brazilians for reducing poverty during his presidency. That lasted from 2003 to 2010. But after he left office, he got ensnared in a graft investigation and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Then in the latest twist, the Supreme Court in 2019 ordered his release. They didn't say he was innocent, but they cited procedural errors. So now Lula is running to get his old job back. I was with him on the campaign trail in northern Brazil last week. He's getting up there. He's 76 years old now, and he's mostly relying on nostalgia. He's basically saying - his campaign pitch is, I was a good president two decades ago, so you should elect me again.

FADEL: Now, current polls show Bolsonaro trailing Lula by double digits. Why?

OTIS: It's mainly a problem with the economy. It's sluggish right now. And inflation and unemployment are rising. And now some of this has to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, which, according to his critics, Bolsonaro made a lot worse. He shrugged off the disease as nothing more than, like, a common cold or a flu. And he cast doubts on whether or not people should really bother getting vaccinated. And tragically, Brazil ended up with the world's second-highest COVID death toll after the United States. Nearly 700,000 Brazilians have died of COVID.

The big question now is whether Bolsonaro would accept defeat, if, in fact, he actually does lose to Lula, or whether he would try to pull off what would sort of be kind of a Brazilian big lie. He's spent several of the last few months casting doubts on Brazil's electronic voting system, even though it's worked just fine for decades. Bolsonaro is also a former army captain and has suggested that the military should oversee the vote count and has sort of hinted that, well, maybe the military could even step in if they don't like the result. Now, Brazilians take all of this very seriously because this is a country that has a history of military coups and a history of authoritarian leaders.

FADEL: NPR's John Otis in Rio de Janeiro. Thank you, John.

OTIS: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "OUTLIER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.